Seven Days in Heaven
Taiwan, 2010, colour, 16:9, 91 mins.
Directors: Wang Yulin 王育麟, Liu Zijie 刘梓洁.
Original, low-key black comedy set during the week-long Daoist mourning process for a small-town father.
Zhanghua county, west central Taiwan, the present day. In a small town, a man called Lin Guoyuan (Tai Bao) has died in hospital. Daoist priest, and distant relative of the family, Yi (Wu Pengfeng) arrives to transport Lin Guoyuan’s body in its coffin back to the family home, accompanied by Lin Guoyuan’s daughter Mei (Wang Liwen) and her elder brother Dazhi (Chen Jiaxiang). The home has already been equipped with paraphernalia for the wake, and the traditional Daoist seven days of rites begins. Also present is Lin Guoyuan’s young nephew Xiaozhuang (Chen Taihua) who has been asked to make a digital film of the whole process. Absent is Lin Guoyuan’s sister Meifeng (Wang Anqi), whom Yi once dated when young, as she is still travelling abroad with her wealthy husband. Yi’s partner Qin (Zhang Shiying), who works as a professional mourner/wailer, soft-soaps local bigwig councillor Wang Dashu (Wang Yulin) by arranging a special wreath on his behalf, made of beer cans. Meanwhile, Yi spends time with Xiaozhuang, who professes an interest in Daoism. On the seventh day, the coffin is carried through the streets to the official funeral ceremony. Afterwards, Mei goes to Taibei for a job interview, Dazhi returns to his CD stall, Xiaozhuang goes back to his studies in Pingdong, and Yi goes off on another job.
A surprise hit in Taiwan last year  – the number two local film, far behind number one, Monga 艋舺, but far ahead of number three, Au Revoir Taipei 一页台北 – Seven Days in Heaven 父后七日 is a small movie with a limited audience but one that works a strange kind of magic on the viewer as it gradually unpeels. Starting off in very left-field fashion, like a typical Asian digi-movie, and initially confusing as to exactly who is who (and who is related to whom), the movie starts springing suprises after its first half-hour – as the daughter Mei turns to the camera and shares her memories of her father in a deliberately retro-filmy way – and allows its black humour to come through. There have been hints of the lattter from the start, with the use of the Jewish wedding song Hava nagila over scenes of mourning – a joke that will strike western viewers in a more jolting way than other audiences – but the filmmakers’ humour is generally low-key and kind rather than cruel, pointing up the typically practical and informal nature of the whole Chinese mourning process that’s very different from, say, the deadly serious Japanese or Korean.
Based on a short story by Taiwan writer Liu Zijie 刘梓洁 – she also co-directs with Wang Yulin 王育麟, who cameos as a local political bigwig – this original first film by the pair gradually takes on a more structured look as its protagonists (the daughter Mei, the son Dazhi, the Daoist priest Yi, the young cousin Xiaozhuang etc.) swim into focus – to an extent that the final funeral service is shot with great visual formality. And as the characters’ backstories emerge via reminiscences or faded-colour flashbacks, the film’s emotional web grows: Yi once loved the deceased’s ambitious sister (who’s now travelling abroad and notably doesn’t make it for the funeral) and Mei evolves into the film’s emotional centre, with flashbacks to her and her laidback, fun-loving dad (beautifully played by veteran Hong Kong stuntman Tai Bao 太保, aka Zhang Jianian 张嘉年) movingly showing her love for him.
Many Taiwan movies have shown the deeply superstitious and traditional side of the island’s makeup – in many respects much more conservative than in the Mainland – but none have used the approach by Wang and Liu, which avoids both exoticism and the usual funeral-film cliches (family rows etc.) and lets the contradictions between tradition and modernism creep up on the viewer in an undramatic, almost semi-documentary way. (Most of the dialogue, as befits the small-town setting, is in the local Hokkien dialect rather than standard Mandarin Chinese.) Apart from Tai Bao’s likeable beer-and-cigarettes father, Wu Pengfeng 吴朋奉 is good as the no-nonsense Daoist priest and Zhang Shiying 张诗盈 likewise as his pragmatic, so-Chinese partner. But it’s the performance by Wang Liwen 王莉雯 as the daughter that stays in the memory, growing from nothing to a fully-fledged character whose buried grief so realistically surfaces long after the official mourning process.
Presented by Magnifique Creative Media Production (TW). Produced by Magnifique Creative Media Production (TW).
Script: Liu Zijie. Short story: Liu Zijie. Photography: Fu Shiying. Editor: Wang Yulin. Music: none. Art direction: Huang Wanni, Du Shuofeng. Costumes: Huang Wanni, Tu Shuofeng. Sound: Du Duzhi, Guo Liqi. Script/editing advice: Huang Zhixiang.
Cast: Wang Liwen (Mei, daughter), Wu Pengfeng (Yi, Daoist priest), Chen Jiaxiang (Dazhi, son), Chen Taihua (Xiaozhuang, nephew), Tai Bao [Zhang Jianian] (Lin Guoyuan, father), Zhan Bingxun (senior fortune-teller), Zhang Shiying (Qin), Qiu Shuduan, Zhan Biyu, Zhan Biling (lotus-making neighbours), Wang Anqi (Meifeng, Lin Guoyuan’s sister), Zhu Jiayi (nurse), Shi Yucong (medical assistant), Wang Yulin (Wang Dashu, councillor), Lai Zhaomin, Xiaogao (Wang Dashu’s assistants), Pu Chuangjie (Changfa, uncle), Zhan Tingyi (company manager), Lin Hengjun (Mei’s old classmate friend in pub), Liu Zijie (voice-over).
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Asian Digital Competition), 28 Mar 2010.
Release: Taiwan, 27 Aug 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 27 Jan 2011.)