Lao Ma, unlike you, spends most of his time waiting to die. He plays cards and thinks about dying. He smokes a lot. He hangs out with his grandson — who doesn’t think so much about dying — and he looks for swans on Cao Zi Lake. But he spends the final weeks of his life worrying about what his family is going to do with him (his body, more exactly) after he dies. Lao Ma wants to be buried, not cremated, but the local government has banned burial, and requires cremation.

Director Li Ruijin, in his film Fly With the Crane 《告诉他们,我乘白鹤去了》, spins a wealth of emotional power into minute, concentrated doses, most of which are administered in the form of miraculously long, wide-angle shots that are like visual treatments for your various reservations about morality and the relentless walk of time. But his story is rather simple: Lao Ma’s fellow retiree, friend, and card-playing partner dies, gets buried, but then exhumed by the local authorities before he is finally carried off to be burned. Lao Ma finds his only ally in his grandson (adorably played by Tang Long), a cross-generational partnership that gives life to the film’s most exceptional and stunning moments, not least the final, excruciating closing scene.

Li is a delightful sculptor of symbolic networks, which he traces with irony, if not subtlety. Ma is haunted by the white smoke billowing from the village’s several chimneys. And he frequently climbs roofs to stuff the chimneys, to the mounting frustration of the middle-generation.

He is constantly, ironically reprimanded for smoking (“like a chimney”; yes, I almost wrote it) by his children. And it is the middle-generation which forms the invisible core around which the film revolves. For Fly With the Crane, the old and young are both relatively powerless against the dictates of the middle-aged: the town officials, for Lao Ma; and the parents, for his grandson. In a sort of way, Li’s work is about both a powerlessness of youth and a powerlessness of age.

It seems Lao Ma and the children have the only imagination and playfulness in the film, a theme we might intuit is related to Ma and the children’s lack of power. Lao Ma insists on the presence of white swans in the lake, which nobody has seen, but with by which his grandson is entranced. Ma’s grandson and his friends bury their young heads in the sand as a game, a wonderful wink at Lao Ma’s desire to be buried himself. (They don’t smoke, though).

It’s a slow film, like Lao Ma himself. The world of the film is moving faster than the camera, and so we share Lao Ma’s sense that time is leaving him behind, and that, just like him, we can’t keep up.

Fly With the Crane was recommended to me by a friend for its soundtrack by Xiao He (born He Guofeng), himself known for his highly experimental debut album Performance of Identity, the style of which Xiao He carries into Li’s work. Incredibly, Xiao He is on Spotify in the United States, where he has either six or seven monthly listeners, depending on whether I count as a monthly listener after researching for this bit. You should check him out.

Director: Li Ruijin
Release Date: 29 August 2012 (Italy)
Run Time: 99 mins

Source Material: From Su Tong’s Tell Them I Have Gone with the White Crane; Su Tong also wrote Wives and Concubines, famously adapted by Zhang Yimou as Raise The Red Lantern

Awards: Venice Film Festival, Nominated for Best Film (2012); Hong Kong Int’l Film Festival, Nominated for SIGNIS Award (2013)

Where to watch: You can find it here, with English subtitles… though you’ll want to turn off the text crawl by moving this slider to the left:

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