A young woman finds herself haunted by a sense of erasure in Liu Ze’s moving family drama Being Mortal (来处是归途, lái chǔ shì guītú) adapted from the novel by Li Yanrong. As the title might suggest, the questions the heroine faces are those of mortality and of the realities of death and ageing in contemporary China as she struggles to decide what the best thing to do is when it comes to caring for her ageing parents. Highlighting both the social changes born of increasing modernity and the pressures of an ageing society, Liu’s drama has few answers but explores the strain caring for those who will not recover can place on those around them.
At 30, Tian (Tang Xiaoran) makes the difficult decision to accept a job transfer and return to her hometown in order to help her mother, Wenxiu (Li Kunmian), care for her father, Jianguo (Zhang Hongjing), who has been suffering with dementia for the past few years. Though we do not hear much about her life in the city, it’s also true that part of the motivation for moving lies in her unsatisfying relationship with a married co-worker who refused to leave his family. A friend suggests that he may have been reluctant to make the move in part because of Tian’s responsibility to her father, viewing him as a burden he was unwilling to bear. At the wedding of a hometown friend, she rekindles a relationship with her high school boyfriend, Qin Mu (Shi Xiaofei), the two of them being the only ones among their classmates to have remained unmarried. But as both the romance and Jianguo’s illness progress, the need to care for him also places a strain on the couple’s relationship with constant confusion as to the shared responsibilities and uncertainty for the future.
Tian does have an older sister, Hua (Wang Tan), who is already married and has a child of her own yet lives some distance away and is able to help only financially though her money is often refused. Feeling guilty and seeing the toll caring for Jianguo is taking on her mother and sister, Hua suggests that it might be time to consider a nursing home or else a professional carer but Wenxiu and Tian are reluctant believing they’d be abandoning him or failing in their responsibility of care. Even so the rapid progression of his dementia which intensifies when he is hospitalised with pneumonia places an increasing strain on the two women, Wenxiu at one point snapping and shouting at Jianguo after he has soiled himself. As the women argue, Qin Mu finds himself trying to clean the old man up only to be shooed away by a regretful Wenxiu after she’s pulled herself together and retreat to the bathroom where Tian can hear him retching. This momentary crisis brings the couple’s relationship to a crunch point, Tian telling Qin Mu he can leave and he doing so without much of a protest.
Much of the drama revolves around the effects of Jianguo’s illness on those around him, but he often has heartbreaking moments of lucidity sobbing in terror and frustration the first time he wets himself as his wife and daughter even in their own shock and confusion do their best to help him. “I’m completely worthless” he later cries, returning a pained gaze and muttering “I’m sorry” before trying to stab himself in the neck after hearing Wenxiu snap “stop tormenting me” in a moment of frustration. Meanwhile he keeps saying that he wants to go home, back where they lived years ago haunted by the figure of a small boy reminding him of the son they lost to illness in childhood.
Tian is perhaps lucky in that despite the One Child Policy, she does have a sister and is not entirely alone even in the spectre of her impending orphanhood no matter how her relationship with the similarly burdened Qin Mu may turn out as he contends with his hardline former soldier father pent up with his own sense of embittered resentment. Nevertheless, Liu captures a sense of the despair among women like Tian facing a series of dilemmas in considering the best way to care for her parents as they age while also worrying for her own future in a sometimes uncertain society. Though essentially low key and naturalistic determined to present a sense of everyday ordinariness Liu’s sweeping transitions between moments in time along with flights into Chinese opera and the occasional dream sequence lend a note of poignancy to the familial tragedy at the film’s centre.
Being Mortal streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.
Original trailer (English subtitles)