Over the last year, many of our lives have taken on the slowed-down texture of a Wang Bing film. Work bleeds endlessly into life, economic marginalization and dispossession intensify and even the spaces between seconds feel elongated and extended. The director’s 2007 documentary Fengming: A Chinese Memoir begins by following an elderly woman home, up hilly snow-lined paths and into her modest apartment. It is only when she settles, tiny in a leather armchair, that we see her face. For the next three hours, she speaks about her life as a journalist and the many brutalities and privations that she and her family endured under Mao Zedong’s mid-century Anti-Rightist Campaign and its long aftermath.
She tells of how she was forced back to the office after a failed suicide attempt and arrived to rescue her husband from a re-education camp a scant few weeks too late. Her monologue is devastating yet never becomes sensationalistic. The camera never leaves the scene, even when she gets up to go to the bathroom.
“It’s like a memory vanished,” Wang explains of the campaign when we Skype, through a translator, in January. Within a two- year period, between 500,000 and 2,000,000 “rightists” within the Communist Party were purged by means of jail, torture and internment in labor camps; many died of starvation before they were formally rehabilitated over the next few decades. For most filmmakers, one such historical episode might result in a single film. But Wang, who is considered China’s foremost documentarian and an auteur in his own right, returns to the subject again and again. A picture of the period accretes through both interviews with survivors, such as in Dead Souls (2018) and Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018), and fiction like 2010’s The Ditch, coming into focus like a slowly loading GIF.
Wang’s oeuvre is full of quiet, patient excoriations. His films eschew political grandstanding for finely observed portraits of those marginalized by contemporary Chinese society—factory workers, ethnic minorities, the unhoused and the dispossessed. Many are set in geographically peripheral provinces, too: the northwest, where he grew up; Shenyang in the northeast, where he went to school; and Yunnan in the southwest, where he relocated for his health. “Every province has different stories,” he explains. It’s also worth emphasizing that his is not a cinema of deprivation or struggle but rather of being made obsolete, whether by the Chinese Communist Party’s design or by capitalism. Wang is uninterested in imposing the narrative or moral frameworks that are so prevalent in both state-sponsored and dissident cinema. When asked about the tension between observation and witnessing, he replies that “words like witness, it’s not my way of thinking. I think more in a cinematic way.” Although shooting has been interrupted by the pandemic, he is currently working on a film on West African traders in Guangzhou, which will include footage from a trip he made to Lagos in 2019.
Although he attended film school and started his career working in the Chinese film industry, Wang quickly grew disillusioned; he prefers the freedom, creative possibilities and financial viability of shooting alone or with a bare-bones crew of three or four at most. (His films are not shown in the country except very recently in art contexts, but circulate as DVDs.) They are largely unscored, which he attributes to his “very, very low post-production budget.” The use of diegetic sound, with music filtering through only as a ringtone or on the radio, further helps to avoid any cheap sentimentality. This becomes especially apparent in Mrs. Fang (2017), which chronicles the last week in the life of a bedridden elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease, her life ebbing away even as the camera looks on.
Wang’s films are also, as a rule, extremely long. He first became known for the nine hour and 11 minute-long Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), which charts the decline of heavy industry and its effects on local families through gorgeous long takes that somehow never approach the timbre of ruin porn. Cinema is usually an exercise in contracting time, but it is further dilated in 15 Hours, which was commissioned for documenta 14 in 2017 and features a single 15-hour take of a garment processing factory, and Crude Oil (2008), a 14-hour documentary about oil extraction.
Watching a film of this length shifts the viewing paradigm, of course. In this, Wang’s work is analogous to other slow cinema, or art films like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010). But a better framework for understanding might be in the tradition of labor cinema. There’s a certain dignity accorded to work, especially of the repetitive, unglamorous, grinding kind that keeps global capitalism going, with attention not just to the end products but to the process of their making. It’s the antithesis of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 statement that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Take the comparatively sprightly 92-minute Man with No Name (2010), which trails a silent hermit over the course of a year. His environment is desolate yet stunning through the seasons, all wheat, gold, and later, snow. We watch him gather wood and water, plant and harvest his patch of a field, mend a mud-walled abode, and cook in the small cave he calls home. Slowly, we realize that we are seeing an entire cycle of resource gathering and production, except that here it’s not capitalism, but subsistence.
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