Rising Chinese helmer Li Ruijun (“Old Donkey,” “The Summer Solstice”) makes his most accomplished feature yet with the spiritually inclined, generally light-of-touch “Fly With the Crane.” Based on a novel by co-producer Su Tong, whose “Wives and Concubines” was adapted as “Raise the Red Lantern,” pic explores a rural granddad’s desire, as explained to his pint-sized grandson, to be buried like in the old days, though only cremations are permitted nowadays. Sharing some of the same concerns as Peng Tao’s “The Cremator,” this simply told but resonant story will be a high flier at fests, including those aimed at older kids.
Old Ma (Ma Xingchun, dignified) used to be a carpenter and artist, but when the government put a stop to burials, the market for Ma’s beautifully painted coffins went up in smoke. Ma’s grandson, Zhi (Tang Long, a firecracker wise beyond his years), loves to play with his friends from the village as much as he does his grandfather, and he’s inquisitive about the mythological and religious creatures he knows about from the cartoons shown on TV.
One day, Ma thinks he’s spotted a white crane at nearby Lake Cao Zi, an occurrence so rare everyone makes fun of the old man. But for 73-year-old Ma, it’s the beginning of the realization that he wants to be buried instead of cremated, as tradition has it that the souls of those interred will fly to heaven on the back of a white crane — and Ma is convinced that a “puff of smoke” from a crematorium won’t be able to do the same.
Throughout the film, there are subtle (and, occasionally, not so subtle) indicators that point to where the story’s headed and what its underlying themes are. Ma, with the help of the willing and mischievous Zhi, often clogs the chimney of the home of Zhi’s parents, since Ma obviously has a general dislike of smoking chimneys. Similarly telling is one of Zhi’s preferred games with his friends, which consists of seeing who can remain buried under the sand the longest.
As the pic winds its way to its perhaps foreseeable but no less startlingly filmed ending — in an impressive, minutes-long circling shot followed by a short, final closeup — it manages to touch on many subjects, including the difference between generations, between city and country, and between the ways of yore and government-imposed modernity.
Its treatment of death as a natural part of life, and something that perhaps merits just as much thought and attention, reps one of the pic’s highlights, and the subject is discussed with the children in a straightforward manner — though the film’s ending might be a bit too much for younger, especially Western tykes to process.
Technically, the film is Li’s most skillful work to date, even though the quality of d.p. Yang Jin’s digivid lensing is not always entirely smooth. Heavily color-corrected, with bushes and trees shades of lime green and harlequin, and skies uniformly tending toward azure at the top of the screen, the film nonetheless contains some beautiful images, including a sequence shot on Lake Cao Zi, as villagers harvest reeds and chase after a duck.
Costumes, presumably chosen by Li, who’s also the pic’s art director (no costume designer was credited), reflect the generation gap, with Ma in dark-hued, more traditional attire, his children in semi-traditional brighter colors, and the grandchildren either naked or in vivid, entirely Western T-shirts, often with English-language prints.