A Corner of Heaven
Written by Zhang Miaoyan and Roelof Jan Minneboo
Directed by Zhang Miaoyan
China’s interior is a treasure trove of landscapes that cinema has barely begun to tap. Shot in a bleak black and white, and comfortable moving from beautiful lyricism to impoverished realism, A Corner of Heaven comes across as a muddied blend of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Alexei German.
Zhang Miaoyan, while not especially prolific (A Corner of Heaven is just his third feature film), is establishing a reputation for beautiful cinematography, a slow approach to cinema, and thoughtfulness present beyond every shot. Taking a story Zhang heard in the news, A Corner of Heaven meanders through a simple plot: In a small rural area in central China by the Yellow River, a woman abandons her two children and their elderly grandfather, vanishing from their lives without a trace. Her son, a nameless boy, abandons his family as well, in a hopeless attempt to find her. Along the way he is kidnapped, put into slave labour, joins gangs, and never gives up on his pursuit.
Zhang’s cinematography draws the eye like an ink painting, as he lets the camera wander and linger in broad strokes – long takes evoking a sense of discovery and offers up a sumptuous amount of detail. The unnamed boy is the guiding centre of the camera’s axis. But not in the sense that the camera operates as a viaduct that gives the audience his perspective, rather the audience is the landscape unfolding before his eyes; wandering with him as he is constantly uncovering new and unseen worlds.
Seen through the boy’s eyes, this black and white backdrop of crumbling walls and old villages is a bleak sight; but this is all the boy knows. He’s searching for his mother, and then struggling to survive, there’s rarely a moment to sit back and allow natural beauty to reveal itself. The moments that do are that much more memorable for it. The opening pastoral shot of him as a shepherd, guiding his flock through the woods as passages of sunlight cascade through the branches around them. Or when he stands still, as well as the camera, to take in the joyous fireworks of a town’s celebration, using the pitch black mountain as a vantage point. Bursts of light illuminate and outline the foreground of the scene in fits and starts, so rapid it’s almost mimicking the slow flicker of a projector reel. These moments are all the more striking because Zhang maintains the shot, giving the viewer time to become absorbed and subdued by the haunting elegance.
While Zhang’s method of storytelling is often gentle. Even amidst the harsh world he observes, A Corner of Heaven does not shift in tone or atmosphere depending on events; it never veers into didactic moralism or political canvassing, regardless of how the circumstances change. It remains the personal story of this one boy and his family, and even when the film allows him to serve as a stand in for a larger statement on aspects of China as a whole, it brings itself back to the individual.
The ending of the film, while a far cry from happy, seems at first as if some small level of success can be attained: even without finding his mother, the boy has overcome the arduous journey and is home again. Yet even as the boy finally completes his odyssey, he discovers that in his absence, his grandfather sold his sister. So with a steadfast sincerity, and the resolute face of one far beyond his few years, the boy leaves his home to begin a new perpetual search. Through this non-ending, A Corner of Heaven becomes a Sisyphean coming of age story where there is no way home again.
There is a temptation to read into this a universal comment on life; or a political statement on China, and while those readings could be valid, the film feels all the richer for not deigning to offer them up as solutions or salves for the soul. It is content to simply tell a story of one life’s sorrow, punctuated with beauty in the everyday. A reminder that not only does film need not end on a happy note, but that the end itself is merely a continuation of the journey. And A Corner of Heaven is a beautiful, poignant journey.