CHINA: The separate stories of two men struggling to pay for unexpected medical operations together form a prism through which to view modern China.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 15, 2019

Life Is A Belief is dedicated on screen to «you and I, the everyday people working hard to live in this world». It’s an apt summation of the philosophy of this documentary, an anti-romantic vision of the unpredictability and toil of existence, which offers little in the way of consoling ideals. However, in its broad scope and mirroring of situations the film does place its trials and sufferings in the context of a bittersweet, universal life cycle. It’s the latest film from Chinese director Han Xiao, whose prior film Himalaya: Ladder to Paradise (2015) explored the lives of the mountain guides that take climbers up Mount Everest. Assisting others on their self-aggrandising efforts to conquer nature is far from the minds of the protagonists of Life Is A Belief, who are focused on merely scraping together the means for family survival.

Life Is A Belief. Director: Han Xiao
Life Is A Belief. Director: Han Xiao

The heaviness of material responsibility

At the heart of the film are two men who carry the welfare of their family members as a heavy responsibility. Huang Zhongjian is a 26-year-old who moved to Foshan, a city in the province of Guangdong, a decade ago to work on property construction sites. We’re granted intimate access to the tiny, cramped apartment – piled high with kitchen paraphernalia and junk – that he shares with his wife Zhang Xuefei as they bicker and await the birth of their first child. The marriage did not come easy, her parents having been set against the union due to their scepticism of Huang’s capacity to offer adequate material support – especially as a gender imbalance means eligible bachelors outnumber prospective brides.

At the heart of the film are two men who carry the welfare of their family members as a heavy responsibility.

Aheti, by contrast, is a 66-year-old saddle maker who lives a rural life in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest – home to the ethnic Muslim-minority Uyghurs. He usually has to make twenty saddles per year to make ends meet, but order numbers are decreasing as more people take to riding motorbikes, putting the future of his business in jeopardy.

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