Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven - Carol Salter

Seventeen-year-old Ying Ling works in a spa for the deceased. More precisely, she works as a mortician in one of China’s largest undertaking firms. One of the services offered is a spa ritual, performed in front of the deceased’s grieving relatives. In a quiet ceremony, the body is washed, dressed, given a haircut and a shave if needed, make-up is applied; strikingly, it is also given treatments as if it were still part of the living: a massage, a facial. Kind, caring words are whispered to the deceased.

Ying Ling works and sleeps at the mortuary, far from home. Like many other young Chinese people, she has had to travel a long distance, through this immense country, to find a job. The one she has found presents particular challenges: the intimacy of offering close care to the dead, witnessing relatives’ grief, and the possibility of ghosts. Ying Ling says she is afraid of those. With an equally young colleague, she searches online, on her mobile phone, for advice on how to deal with that. They giggle, and over time become friends. There is sweetness there.

Sometimes, she calls home. Her attempts to obtain some parental love and solace from those calls are rebuffed. It becomes apparent that the calm, sterile environment of her place of work is a kinder place. Kinder, but still not the right place for her.

She, like many other young people, dream of another, less constricted life. She is hoping for something else, and so is her friend. They are living in limbo. Unlike the deceased they help, who are on their way to another state, Ying Ling and her friend seem in stasis. The vast, clean, quiet spaces in which they work, the ritualised movements in what they do, where all their actions, words and even emotions are carefully rehearsed; all these seem a world away from what one can imagine is real life, even though the finality of what happens here defines life.

Documentary filmmaker Carol Salter captures, with sensitivity, those moments of finality: a long shot of a grieving woman calling out to her dead mother, a wide shot of assembled relatives, heads bowed, at a spa ceremony.

This short documentary feature (75 minutes) is a quietly wistful and gently wry snapshot of a life in transition. Despite the sombre background to Ying Ling’s work, the film is sweet and light – the story is about a young person’s forward path in life; the striking background story of the mortuary is not her story. Ying Ling charmingly finds another way to deal with the lives of others.

Director-screenwriter: Carol Salter
Producers: Carol Salter, Elhum Shakerifar, Heike Bachelier, Cinzia Baldessari
Director of photography: Carol Salter
Music: Terence Dunn
Editors: Cinzia Baldessari, Hoping Chen, Rodrigo Saquel

First published on Screenwords, September 2017