• [The Daily] Locarno 2017: Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang

    By David Hudson


    Mrs. Fang is a study of a face and a sober essay on death,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “It’s also about fishing. As profoundly moving as it is troubling, this new masterwork from documentary filmmaker Wang Bing might ask a great deal of anyone sitting down to watch it, both ethically and otherwise, but also, in cinematic terms, it delivers a great deal. The face in question is that of Fang Xiuying, an elderly farmer who died of advanced Alzheimer’s in 2016. Wang’s film is an uncompromising document of the last ten days of her life. Indeed, for obvious reasons, death filmed in this way remains something of a cinematic taboo, but any viewer willing to give in to the rigorous format and somber nature of what’s on screen might just find something cathartic.”

    “In the cramped downstairs lounge where Fang resides, we observe the family bicker about her condition, second-guess her feelings, question her sentience and mourn her impending loss,” writes Joseph Owen at the Upcoming. “This is not a sentimental film, but more a stark, honest and reflective one.”

    At Cineuropa, Giorgia Del Don finds that “Wang Bing uses Mrs. Fang’s last gestures to write a visual poem of rare intensity: both desperate and sublime.”

    “Increasingly,” writes Lorenzo Esposito for the Locarno Festival, where Mrs. Fang is competing, “in Wang Bing’s works (the latest seem to form a single discourse, from Ta’ang to Ku Qian) there is a magic circle where attachment to life and disorientation for the fractures that compose it signify both a poetic sign of ancient archaism and centuries-old myths before they are lost.”

    A full retrospective of Wang Bing’s films, accompanied by an exhibition of archival materials, is currently on in Kassel, Germany as part of documenta 14. “Born in 1967 in Shaanxi Province, northwest China, Wang remembers the social and political upheavals of the late twentieth century,” writes Zhang Yaxuan. “He had a hard childhood, marked by the death of his father when he was fourteen years old.” While studying photography at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, Wang “chanced upon Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818–29), which might have contributed to what he has acknowledged is the ‘conservatism’ of his aesthetic approach. Yet this classical sensibility, extended into the contemporary situation, has been transformed into a modernized aesthetic impulse. Wang Bing, by capitalizing on the democratizing possibilities of digital filmmaking, pushes the boundaries of documentary language. And this breakthrough of the limits of documentary as a genre redefines and expands its relationship with film.”

    Update, 8/12: Wang “photographs his friend dying to honor her final hours and find the life that still can be glimpsed despite a body immobilized and a voice robbed from her,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “The film’s other, spare parts—tableaux of family and neighbors surrounding the matriarch’s bed, waiting, weeping, wondering, and the men’s excursions nearby to fish with electric poles—provide a surrounding that is bare and raw, stripped out of the world to focus only on the grief of the dying and enduring eerie, sad search for sustenance. When Wang returns to the woman’s face, it replaces the landscape, village and people who have left her to die among the few who care.”

    Updates, 8/13: “This is filmmaking so unblinking, and so without sentiment that sometimes it requires an effort of will not to wince away from the screen, especially any time Wang returns to that closeup of her skeletal face,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety. “This level of intimacy skirts the boundaries of prurience and consent. Mrs. Fang is for these last days unable to speak, unable even to move under her own volition, so how can we know how she feels about the filmmakers’ presence, if she’s even aware of it? But it also asks exceptionally uncomfortable questions of us, about why we are so unnerved by the naked evidence of this most natural and inevitable of human processes, about why we want to look away, and why we do not.”

    Mrs. Fang is unreservedly voyeuristic,” writes Screen’s Allan Hunter. “The only respite in this rigorously unsentimental film comes as three of the men take to the river to fish at night. There are glimpses of a local community, battered by heavy rains, marked by poverty and where a drab grey seems to be the predominant color.”

    Updates, 8/15: “Albert Serra's recent The Death of Louis XIV feels like a fictional cousin to Mrs. Fang, winner of the Golden Leopard,” writes James Lattimer at the House Next Door. “As always in Wang's work, Mrs. Fang evinces an unobtrusive structuralism and ability to distill insight from seemingly innocuous occurrences; perhaps the film's only real innovation is that these virtues can cast their spell just as well over ninety minutes as they do over the several hours that his documentations frequently last. And while the film's ultimate message is also not radically new, it's typically wise. As the family's constant conjecture gives way to silence before the end, it's as if they themselves grasp what Wang has been getting at the entire time: You can try all you want to read the signs, but death is pure inscrutability.”

    Boyd van Hoeij for the Hollywood Reporter: “What little poetry there is comes more from what Wang tries to provoke in the viewer than what’s onscreen, with the shaky handheld and frequently penumbral aesthetic only reinforcing the mundane banality of the event, making this chronicle of Mrs. Fang’s foretold death at once highly specific and completely universal. The unusually intimate documentary’s big win at Locarno can only further consolidate Wang’s reputation as one of the foremost nonfiction chroniclers from China, though no critic is likely to argue this is his best work.”

    Updates, 8/18: From Nadin Mai: “Photography has long been considered in the context of death; a photograph as the arrest of a certain moment, the arrest of time, a stoppage. It is said that, in some ways, photography always captures death because, once a photograph has been developed, it shows a moment that has been. But only film can capture death. Death is durational; it is a passageway; it is the passing from one state into another; it is movement. . . . Mrs. Fang goes deep, deeper than any other film I know dealing with the human being, the human as a living creature whose life is finite.”

    “The cumulative effect of the film’s long takes suggest to us the banality of death, a process and passage more exhausting than it is emotional,” writes Ross McDonnell for Little White Lies. “With no grand exeunt, no moment of deliverance, what remains is a filmmaker incapable of intervention, footage of an inevitable event his film can approach but not reach.”

    Update, 8/20: For Michael Sicinski, Mrs. Fang is “an indelible piece of portraiture. And what a portrait it is, layered with both pitiless, Warholian objectivity and the humanist, there-but-for-the-grace-I-go tenderness of a real-time piéta.”

    Updates, 9/2: “Befitting its intimate subject matter, Mrs. Fang is a smaller film than some of Wang’s more panoramic studies of contemporary China,” writes Jordan Cronk for Film Comment, “but there’s a potency to its scale and an undeniable power to its directness. A major festival win for one of the world’s great documentary filmmakers was long overdue.”

    Daniel Kasman and Christopher Small introduce their interview with Wang for Cinema Scope: “The forlorn loneliness of the fishing and its meagre effectiveness cast these moments of respite away from the claustrophobic house in poetic relief: a kind of soul searching, both in the needs of life (searching for food) and the needs of play (the activity has the aspect of a game). We can’t help but feel that the men’s search in the town’s watery outskirts is a search in some way to relieve Mrs. Fang: not to help her recover, but to help her pass without greater suffering. They step away, perhaps to escape the pervasive atmosphere of impending death, to fish for the family, but something in their search, shown in all its patient simplicity, achieves the metaphysical. Their activity is everyday; it will even—of course—resume after Mrs. Fang dies. Is it too much of a stretch to compare these fishermen with Wang Bing, their electric rods to his camera, and their search for life something he, too, quests after every day?”

    Update, 9/8: Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema: “As she slowly sloughs off this mortal coil, Bing’s message, including the prominence of naming this documentary for his subject, suggests instead a cruel meaningless—all that matters of Mrs. Fang for our purposes is the process of dying. Alone, despite being surrounded by (supposed) loved ones, her death registers in this format as an equal non-event as the life predicating it, and Bing’s result is perhaps the most unromantic portrait of egress ever committed to film.”

    Update, 9/10: Michael J. Anderson, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, suggests that Mrs. Fang “belongs to the same, face-focalized subset of the director’s work that also includes Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), though to quite opposite ends: where Mrs. Fang shows a woman stripped, through her lack of communication and interpersonal acknowledgement, of a recognizable interior life, the testimonial Fengming introduces the viewer to a woman possessed of extraordinary mental faculty and skills of recollection, who lives every day with the details of her former sufferings. In this case, then, Mrs. Fang is closer to the director’s work in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), which focused on the residents of large state mental institution—and on subjects, therefore, whose mental faculties and thought processes are not always immediately discernible to the spectator.”

    Updates, 9/16: Wang has “happened upon a handy aesthetic conceit,” writes Michael Koresky for Film Comment, “oscillating between the tight confines of the dying woman’s bedroom and the men’s fishing pond, two spaces that inform one another obliquely but clearly—it’s so very simple: in both cases, life is there, and then it isn’t. But life and death are also utterly irreducible, perhaps unrepresentable, despite an ‘unblinking’ camera.”

    “In most of Wang’s previous films, the space usually determines the time—the condition of places decides the films’ duration, beginnings and endings,” writes Zoe Meng Jiang for IndieWire. “But [in] Mrs. Fang, the time determines the space. . . . Wang possesses an unusual ability to stay attuned to his subject—throughout the entire film, the camera is always hand-held, never to be placed on some other stable object, even during several exceptionally-long takes of Fang’s face in close-up, in which almost nothing moves. This is Wang’s cinematic way of mourning. He shows us in extreme detail how death—this ultimate life event—is eerily uneventful.”

    At In Review Online, Sam C. Mac sees the fishing scenes as “less about providing the audience a reprieve than they are about understanding how the different generations of Fang’s family are coping. . . . The existential consideration of this human progression aligns Mrs. Fang with the tenets of Wang’s objectivist, anthropological cinema.”

    Update, 9/21: “One particularly wrenching moment arrives almost accidentally, Fang reaching out an arm to her daughter at the exact moment that a sentimental soap opera theme rings out from the bedroom’s always-on TV set,” writes Matt Turner in the Brooklyn Rail. “Real life can be written, or it can be recorded.”

    Update, 9/24: Nick Pinkerton for Artforum: “The sharp back-and-forth lateral movement between human woe and the natural world counterpoises two variations on waiting, also working somewhat in the tradition of Tang Dynasty poetry, and watching Wang’s emotional, moral, and pictorial intelligence at work from moment to moment elevates Mrs. Fang above mere morbidity.”

    Update, 9/25: “As in much of his best work, the camera takes stock of the smallness of human activity within a cramped room, somewhere on the neglected outskirts of Chinese society,” writes Andrew Chan here in Current. “He doesn’t wait for this activity to bubble over into conflict; he doesn’t make value judgments on the moments of pettiness or compassion that emerge. His camera is blank-eyed, capturing life as it moves backward and forward in these constricted spaces. But even as we long for him to elicit some kind of warmth or tenderness, it’s always his steadfast dedication to inhabiting the stuttering rhythms of day-to-day existence that moves us.”

    Update, 10/2: “It doesn’t depend on me deciding how ‘long’ the film is going to be, or ‘has’ to be,” Wang tells Jeremy Elphick at 4:3. “It’s very much based and related to the footage that I collect.”

    Update, 10/7: Back in August, “over beers, cigarettes, and a Chinese meal prepared by Tibetans at La Rotonda in Locarno, Wang Bing spoke with me about his influences, the geopolitical and topographical dimensions of his work, and the making of Mrs. Fang,” writes Zoe Meng Jiang in the new issue of the Brooklyn Rail.

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