The sheer length of the films by Wang Bing, the foremost chronicler of lives lived on the margins in twenty-first century China, all but requires that, if even a partial retrospective of his work is to be squeezed into a single weekend, it’ll take more than a single venue to present it. Starting today, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, Metrograph, and Museum of the Moving Image will screen a total of nine films through Sunday, with the Metrograph showing Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) on Saturday, November 24.
We should also mention that the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid will wrap a series tomorrow that Wang launched last month with a masterclass. That series concludes where Wang’s career as a documentarian began, with West of the Tracks (2003), a portrait of the Tie Xi industrial district in the northeastern city of Shenyang as it deteriorated in the wake of China’s rapid shift from a socialist to a free market economy. “Patient without redundancy, intimate without sentimentality, this film preserves the integrity of its disintegrating subject’s time and space, has stunning cinematography, and is edited into a narrative that maintains a humility of perspective rare in documentary treatments of the working class,” wrote Jie Li in a 2008 essay for Jump Cut. In 2009, Luc Sante argued that one “measure of the greatness of Wang Bing’s film is that it does not allow the viewer to sink into the comforting numbness of despair.”
A film in three parts totaling nine hours (edited down from over 300) and shot on a small rented DV camera, West of the Tracks won a modestly-sized yet fiercely dedicated audience as it rolled through the international festival circuit in the early 2000s. “Here was a director intent on swallowing reality whole, whose tireless focus on life on the lowest rungs of the social ladder counteracted both the melodramatic excesses of Fifth Generation auteurs like Zhang Yimou and the propagandism of most Chinese nonfiction filmmaking up to that point,” wrote Andrew Chan for Film Comment in 2016.
Introducing their 2017 interview with Wang for Film Comment, Michael Guarneri and Jin Wang proposed that the filmmaker has addressed two central themes. First, there’s the set of documentaries “dedicated to the careful observation of common people’s everyday lives, thus bringing to the screen the few joys and many tribulations of factory workers, roughnecks, truck drivers, peasants, and mental patients in present-day China,” while the second set constitutes “a historical investigation into how the Communist Party of China dealt with ideological dissent in the late 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.”
Along with West of the Tracks, Three Sisters (2012) would be among the films falling into the first category. A portrait of three girls aged four, six, and ten who have been abandoned by their mother and left to the care of their small village when their father heads to the city to work, it’s a “simple story,” as documentarian Thom Andersen notes in Cinema Scope, but “there is fire in every shot.” Abandonment also haunts the harrowing ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), for which Wang followed 200 men in a desolate mental institution. “Wang’s underlying intent,” argues James Lattimer in Slant, is “to give back to the inmates the opportunity for individual expression that this place and, by extension, society has robbed them of.”
For Ta’ang (2016), Wang climbed to the sparsely populated hills along China’s border with Myanmar, where, as Daniel Kasman writes in the Notebook, refugees “are held precariously in static limbo, waiting for ominous and anonymous off-screen combat to conclude so that they may commit to one side or the other.” Bitter Money (2016) takes us to the bustling eastern city of Huzhou, where some 300,000 people toil in thousands of small textile businesses. “There are moments of friendship and warmth” among his subjects, notes Dan Schindel at Hyperallergic, “but the primary sense a viewer gets is that being on the bottom rung of capitalism consists mainly of boredom. Survival is above all else a mundane business.” That point is hammered home especially hard in 15 Hours (2017), a companion piece shot in a garment factory in one long relentless take.
Wang will be at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday to present Mrs. Fang (2017), winner of the Golden Leopard in Locarno. The relatively short film (just eighty-six minutes) chronicles the final days of Fang Xiuying, sixty-seven, and her family in a small village in the south of China. Michael Sicinski finds that, with this film, Wang “returns to the intimacy that has always been his strong suit. Mrs. Fang is simultaneously an end-of-life study, in the vein of [Frederick] Wiseman’s Near Death and [Allen] King’s Dying at Grace, and an indelible piece of portraiture.”
In Michael Guarneri and Jin Wang’s second category, we find Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) and Dead Souls (2018), both addressing the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” of the late 1950s. He Fengming, the subject of Wang’s three-hour interview, and her husband were among the enthusiastic supporters of the government who had been encouraged during Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign to offer constructive criticism. In return, they were branded as rightists, and many, including Fengming’s husband, died in camps where they were forced into hard labor as a form of “re-education.” To return to Andrew Chan, here writing for Reverse Shot in 2008, Fengming is “a consummate work of art in the guise of a bare-bones oral history.” Wang conducted more interviews with survivors of this chapter in Chinese history for Dead Souls, the longest film ever to be included in Cannes’ official selection. The film “continues to enrich, complicate, add nuance and much-needed detail, effectively combating the hegemony of contemporary Chinese history, once referred to by Wang as ‘the history of a monstrous uniformization of thought,’” notes Annabel Brady-Brown, introducing her interview with Wang for the Notebook.
Talking to the New Left Review in 2013, Wang noted that filmmaking “can deploy various tactics: close-up or long shot; camera in view or hidden; conscious performance or spontaneous reaction. These are not important issues. The key is your choice.” Writing for Cinema Scope, Shelley Kraicer suggests that “‘Wang Bing films souls’ could be a rough approximation of the impossible magic he regularly weaves in these uncannily ‘realist’ documentaries. He accomplishes this thanks to a combination of extraordinary sensitivity to his subjects’ body language and an uncanny ability to choose just the right distance.”
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