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.
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.
The paths of these men living in very different worlds never literally cross, but their plights come to echo one another in a way that suggests a modern China whose well-being as a whole is in jeopardy due to a breakdown of generational ties. Their daily economic hardships are massively compounded when fate throws the worst at them in the form of unexpected family health ailments requiring expensive operations. The joy Huang and his wife feel at the birth of their baby is mixed with the worry and heartbreak of learning that the newborn has a complicated congenital heart defect that needs surgical correction within two weeks. Not wanting to endure the humiliation of asking his parents-in-law for money, Huang calls around to acquaintances for a loan.
There is social pressure to foot these bills alone as a condition of what it takes to be a man.
Aheti is just as desperate to drum up some urgent cash, his nephew being in need of a kidney transplant. Debt collectors are already on his case because of a loan taken out by his wayward son. «Allah will find a way,» Aheti tries to believe. In both men’s lives, marital problems are stoked by the social pressure to foot these bills alone as a condition of what it supposedly takes to be a man.
Urbanisation and the decline of traditions passed down through generations are threads that point to a weakening of community support networks and family stability. Huang learns martial arts, but we hear the practice is being largely abandoned by a more materialistic youth. Foshan is also home to the traditional lion dance, which is performed to bring good fortune. This strikingly costumed custom for good luck pops up at one point – one of few rituals the couple can grasp onto in their confusion. Having moved to the city so young in search of better material prospects, Huang has little assistance to fall back on in his predicament.
Aheti’s eldest son has also flown the coop, and will not answer his phone calls to return to assist the family. A high-interest loan seems the only option left, adding to the woe that saddle-making, a skill passed down through six generations, is on its way to becoming obsolete. We join Aheti with his hand-made goods at a market, where two special military saddles are ordered by a customer amid admiration for the technical prowess of his dying craft.
Perhaps life is as it has always been, constant in its changes between good fortune and bad.
The fates of these intertwined stories are left open and inconclusive. In a sense, the economic and familial dilemmas we are privy to offer a rather downbeat view into a China we might regard as losing its way. But gorgeous aerial shots of the cityscapes as the seasons shift through snow to warmer times prompt reflection on the ebbs and flows of life. For all the transformations of a modernising China gripped by a consumerist reorientation in values, perhaps life is as it has always been, constant in its changes between good fortune and bad, triumph and vulnerability.