While stories of life and death are common subjects in films, those who work in industries related to death also seem to arouse people's curiosity. When the Japanese film Okuribito premiered five years ago and ended up winning Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009, its soft unfolding of a corpse beautician's job and his witnessing of heart-warming love stories behind each cold body make it a very humane movie, removing the typical repulsion about a job that deals with dead bodies.
Now a Chinese director is also trying his hand in this field. The Cremator, produced in 2012, has already been screened at several international film festivals including the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, and now it is showing in China. As a low budget production with a cost of around 1 million yuan (less than $161,000), it is an independent film that did not enter commercial theaters but was only screened at some art institutions.
A rare subject in Chinese films and documentaries, the picture has not only aroused foreign but also domestic audiences' interest in both this industry and the people engaged in it. "They are at the very bottom of society. Their situation is even worse than migrant workers since most people deem their job as [cursed] and think they are [bad luck]," said Peng Tao, director of The Cremator.
"They are not popular anywhere, people never think of inviting them to parties or happy occasions," said Peng. "I want people to pay more attention to this group of people through this film," he said.
Peng's idea to shoot the film was inspired by a news report about an "infernal marriage," a Chinese tradition that exists in areas like Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan provinces, referring to the match-making between two dead people who were not married when they are alive. Most of them are young and die of accidents, and since their families don't want them to be alone in the afterlife, they get a postmortem partner.
In the film, a man named Lao Cao works in a crematorium in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, and to earn some extra money he helps families arrange infernal marriages. However, since he is becoming old, he also wants to seek an infernal marriage for himself. In his words, "Who wants to marry me doing such a job?"
One day, the lifeless body of a beautiful young girl who died of drowning is delivered to the crematorium. When no one comes to claim the body, Lao Cao secretly keeps it and holds his own mock marriage ceremony.
Later, the girl's younger sister, A Zhu, comes to the crematorium looking for her older sister. Lao Cao lies and says he doesn't remember such a girl's body being delivered there.
As the story progresses, the miserable situations of Lao Cao and A Zhu begin to intersect and eventually intertwine to the point where a quasi family relationship develops. But closeness doesn't relieve their sorrow.