Growing old alone in a village hundreds of miles away from his hometown, Kao might die while doing what he has done in life: cremating people. At a crematorium that receives unclaimed bodies, Kao’s job is to cremate the dead and handle visitors looking for their missing family. This taciturn man with a chronic hacking cough wants to quit his job and return to his hometown, but that seems improbable. Maybe in death he will look just like the lonesome bodies he encounters every day. Then one day a girl walks into Kao’s life. Why does Kao lie to the girl looking for her missing sister? At this point, Kao’s mundane days develop into something more dramatic.
Chang’an district, southern Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, the present day. Cao Yudong (Cheng Zhengwu), who works as a cremator at Holy Crane Funeral Home, has a sideline supplying entrepreneurial undertaker Xie Laojiu (Cao Xi’an) with corpses to be “ghost spouses” to unmarried corpses: according to local custom, if the two are buried side by side they won’t be lonely in the afterlife. Single, Cao Yudong is cooked for and looked after by a married woman (Lang Chunjuan) whose husband is in jail; when news comes her husband is about to be released, she says she must end the business arrangement with Cao Yudong and return home. Left alone, and with a terminal disease, Cao Yudong tells Xie Laojiu he’s thinking of retiring and going back to his hometown in Hua county. In fact, he’s planning to use the recent corpse of a young drowned woman as his “ghost spouse”. One day, however, Chen Xiangju (Wolf Girl), a young woman from the Qinling Mountains in the southeast, comes looking for her elder sister, Chen Xiuqiao, who’s gone missing. Cao Yudong tells her he doesn’t recognise the photo, but he actually realises it’s the young woman he’s planning to use as his “ghost spouse”.
Best known for Little Moth 血蝉 (2007), centred on exploited street kids, Mainland indie director Peng Tao 彭韬 adopts a similarly low-key, downbeat approach to the story of a dying funeral-home worker in Cremator 焚尸人, his fourth feature. Set in a suburb of Xi’an, central China, the film takes a local rural custom of “ghost spouses” – unclaimed corpses buried alongside unmarried ones, so the latter won’t be lonely in the afterlife – to spin a quietly ironic tale of a dying man, the cremator of the title, who finds his selected “spouse” is being sought as a missing person by her younger sister.After a slow set-up, Cremator becomes more animated in the second half by a nascent love story between the dying man and the younger sister, who helps him find a different kind of dignity after he spontaneously abandons his plan and helps her. There’s enough material here for a really touching movie but Peng keeps too tight a rein on natural emotions to really let it register. With his shuffling gait and hacking cough, actor Cheng Zhengwu 程正武 makes the cremator a sad figure but not an empathetic one; better is the actress (credited simply as Wolf Girl 狼女) playing the younger sister, a simple mountain woman who finds that everything comes at a price in New China, including death, but deems it a price worth paying for in the cremator’s case. As an entrepreneurial undertaker who arranges the “underworld marriages”, Cao Xi’an 曹西安 underplays a potentially villainous role.On a technical level the film is unadorned and with subdued lighting. Peng’s film is not as difficult a sit as a lot of Mainland indie fare, nor as annoyingly arty; it’s just disappointing that he didn’t go more with the natural emotional flow.