• [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.”

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