The literature on the Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing teems with terms of immensity. He is said to make “monster films,” “films fleuves,” and films of “leviathan extremes”—phrases that attempt to measure the enormity, in both ambition and running time, of the director’s many epic investigations into his country’s traumatic past and precarious present. Wang himself can be self-deprecating about his monumental approach. “And the film was, once again, too long,” he admitted in one interview. In his nine-hour first film, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003), he included a song whose title seemed to mock the impatient viewer: “Baby, Aren’t You Tired of This Yet?” Crude Oil (2008), one of his several portraits of the hardscrabble lives of workers in today’s China, takes up fourteen hours, a fraction of the original seventy that Wang planned to distill from an even greater mass of footage.
Wang’s most recent monolith, Dead Souls, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The longest film ever presented as an official selection there (it runs to eight hours), Dead Souls revisits the grim subject of Wang’s only fiction film, The Ditch (2010): the deadly “reeducation” camps that the Chinese Communist Party established in the late 1950s to punish and extirpate the “Rightists” who had criticized life in China after Mao encouraged such candor with his exhortation to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” The project of Dead Souls, which includes close to twenty clandestine interviews with some of the few survivors of the Chinese gulags, is not to contribute to the debate over Mao’s intentions but to ensure that the country’s history is honestly and fully witnessed. Dead Souls joins such works as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (to which Wang’s film has been speciously compared) and Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile as a vast memorial to state barbarity.1
Born in 1967 in Xi’an, shortly after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wang was protected from the chaos of the ensuing decade by his parents, who had him schooled in the countryside. His father died in an industrial accident, however, when Wang was fourteen, and he was prematurely launched into the workforce. The bleak factory setting nurtured his artistic impulses; his coworkers included a number of young aesthetes eager to discuss the place of art in the political and economic uncertainty that followed the death of Mao. Wang’s early aspirations to become a painter or architect leave their trace in his films, which, though rough-hewn and ruggedly shot on handheld digital equipment, often use color, light, space, and framing to exquisite compositional effect. Critics have compared Wang’s occasionally extreme chiaroscuro, achieved by chance or calculation, to the tenebrist style of Caravaggio and his followers. A spontaneous Morandi still life emerges from a gathering of crockery on a table during the long, mostly static interview shots of Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), his profile of a journalist who survived the Cultural Revolution.
In the provincial capital of Shenyang, Wang studied still photography, which he found both absorbing and limited. He then enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy and found jobs in television, where he honed his camera technique, of which he remains almost boastfully proud. In a recent master class, he claimed that his camerawork, despite severe constraints—his films depend on cheap, sometimes substandard digital equipment that renders them, he says, closer to home videos than movies—is “top level,” inferior to none. He has been based in Paris since 2017, and simply accepts that his films will never be shown in his homeland.2
Wang’s early acquaintance with the factories of Shenyang provided him with the subject of West of the Tracks, which both established his international reputation and introduced the motifs and techniques that he would refine as he became the most intrepid chronicler of post-Mao China, if not its great poet. (That honor might be claimed by Wang’s brilliant compatriot Jia Zhang-ke, who makes his primarily narrative films with considerably larger budgets, within the state-sanctioned movie system, and under its censorship.) Intent upon presenting as comprehensive a view as possible of the postindustrial ruin of three privatizing factories, the emerging filmmaker arrived at his unique approach to documentary while producing his first film. When Wang describes his method, he uses language more commonly applied to the making of fiction. He relies on chance encounters to find his subjects and shoots copiously (often amassing hundreds of hours of digital footage to discover what he calls the film’s plot or narrative) to find out who its central characters or “narrators” are. He then extricates from the vast accumulation what he calls “the structure of the story.” “You never know,” Wang has said. “Maybe sometimes there is a story there, other times there isn’t.”
Wang found plenty of tales and characters amid the chaos of the dwindling factories of Tiexi (a district of Shenyang) for West of the Tracks, which he shot over two years. He showed his gift for imposing structure on a welter of material by arranging the film into a triptych in which each section deals with a different but related aspect of the region’s deindustrialization. The first part, “Rust,” plunges into the hellish world of three state-owned factories whose remaining workers have been left anxiously waiting for wages that never arrive and for final word on the fate of their workplace. In protracted handheld shots, the camera follows the employees into their smoky break rooms—dens of boredom and surly contention—and snakes through seemingly endless corridors and past the blazing cauldrons of the few functioning smelters.
When they are not pretending to work (“slacking” is considered “sabotaging the Party”) the men take frequent showers. (West of the Tracks features considerable unabashed male nudity, as does ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), Wang’s almost-four-hour-long portrait of a municipal mental hospital in Yunnan Province, though the inmates in that film were hardly in a position to grant him permission to film them naked.) The changing nature of China’s “reformed” economy is registered through the men’s conversation and in overheard news reports about high-tech companies entering the post-Deng marketplace: several asides about the stock market, comments about the job security of the workers building the Three Gorges Dam, and bitter jokes. (“Why is sex so cheap? Layoffs, there’s a glut!”)
A cardinal theme of Wang’s work emerges powerfully in “Rust”—that the state treats its low-level workers and left-behind citizens as worthless and dispensable. Wang’s memory of his father’s death in a factory might have prompted the film’s extended treatment of occupational dangers. His camera lingers on a sign on the wall of the Shenyang Sheet Metal Factory: “Individual safety benefits everyone. Careful craftsmanship means quality products.” But the managers never warn the workers, half of whom are temporary, to wear masks to protect against noxious gases, and employees must spend two months at a hospital having blood transfusions because lead levels in their workplace are a hundred times higher than normal. “Have you ever seen a sorrier bunch? We’re full of lead poisoning, all of us!” one exclaims.
On pay day, the big boss turns up, a walking embodiment of privilege in his portliness, oversized sunglasses, “classy” haircut, and suit, handing out cigarettes in an uneasy act of noblesse oblige to substitute for the wages the men are again denied. One worker complains that his thirty years of work will go down the drain if he is laid off. The promises of a job for life, a pension, health care, and a safety net are all empty now. “They don’t care if you get sick, much less if you die,” he declares. “Next thing you know, the CCP will start calling itself the Republican Party!” To which his superior smugly counsels, “You have to be patient.”
He could have been instructing the film’s viewers. Wang’s cinema both necessitates and presupposes extraordinary patience, not only because his films are so long but also because he has a penchant for repetition and protraction. “Rust” opens with a prolonged fixed shot out the window of a train as it slowly shuttles through Tiexi’s industrial zone, a sequence Wang repeatedly returns to as a leitmotif throughout the first section of West of the Tracks. (The recurring shot recalls the many train sequences in Shoah.) The film also introduces a less successful element of Wang’s visual lexicon—an attenuated follow shot in which the camera fastens on the back of a person as he or she moves through a hallway, into a landscape, or down a street.
Such shots have in recent decades been an affectation of international art cinema, perhaps derived from the films of the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. They proliferate in Wang’s films, to the point that when any character departs a room one braces for a sustained trudge shot that consumes considerable time and usually reveals little. For some of Wang’s admirers, these intractable walking shots assertively connect his figures to the environments they inhabit, but their overuse often deadens the intended effect.
The crucial interplay of motion and immobility in Wang’s cinema also emerges in West of the Tracks, in which his camera either darts or hurtles after people or settles into lingering fixity. As in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni—a film school influence on Wang, along with the Russian mystic Andrei Tarkovsky—incessant motion signals, paradoxically, a frenetic sense of entrapment. But Antonioni’s anguished members of the bourgeoisie could not differ more from Wang’s poorly educated, marginalized workers who board bikes, buses, taxis, and trains to seek new lives, only to find a worse existence—like the young migrants in Bitter Money (2016) who leave for the city and end up enslaved in garment workshops or cheating one another with pyramid scams—or from the Burmese refugees in Ta’ang (2016), who escape from Myanmar to the Chinese border and exist in a state of insecurity and exploitation.
Wang claims never to draw on other films. One wonders, however, if the emphatic sequence in Ta’ang in which his camera remains at length on a mute old woman attempting to keep a candle from being extinguished by a breeze, lavishing a rare close-up on her hands as they cup the flickering flame, is not a conscious allusion to the long take in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) that shows a Soviet man exiled in Italy keeping a candle lit as he crosses an empty mineral pool on foot.
“Get this place on film now,” someone instructs Wang in “Rust,” “because it won’t be around much longer.” Another worker later urges him to “get this for posterity.” (Such quasi-Brechtian ruptures distinguish Wang’s observational style from that of the filmmaker to whom he is most often compared, the American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who likewise studies specific communities and institutions at great length.) In the remaining two sections of West of the Tracks, “Remnants” and “Rails,” Wang elaborates on these themes of loss and decline. He first explores a neighborhood from which the inhabitants are summarily evicted and relocated by the state to make way for private development, and then turns to the itinerant life of an elderly man named Du and his son who have lived for years as scavengers in the railway yards around Tiexi.
In Wang’s deteriorating China, everything falls apart, especially families. Mothers flee or disappear; fathers die, are imprisoned or committed, or abandon their relatives for a new job. Children are left to fend for themselves, like Old Du’s teenage son in West of the Tracks, who, in an almost unbearably moving sequence, shows Wang a pack of family photos from happier times, when he was a child and his mother was still alive. In Three Sisters (2012), a ten-year-old girl named Yingying, her grimy white hoodie emblazoned with the English phrase “Lovely Diary,” takes care of her two younger siblings long after their mother has escaped the harsh existence of their smoky mountaintop hut. “Till death do us part, what a joke,” their father remarks about his errant wife during a brief visit before he again departs for the city, takes the two youngest girls with him, and leaves a lonely, taciturn Yingying to live with her grandmother.
Wang’s singular version of Direct Cinema—the unobtrusive, observational documentary approach that emerged in the late Fifties—is designed to maintain a respectful space between the camera and its subjects. His strict detachment results in moments of miraculous intimacy, but also in sequences—or entire films, in the case of Mrs. Fang (2017), a queasily close-quarters study of a woman slowly perishing from Alzheimer’s—that seem to deny his subjects agency and default on his ethical obligations to them. In Bitter Money, after following a young migrant woman in one of the film’s many trudge shots, Wang lurks outside the window of a shop she has entered and films, in an unedited ten-minute take, her escalating feud with her abusive husband, who beats her and threatens to kill her as his friends look on with growing discomfort. They stand in for the film’s audience, who can justifiably feel complicit in Wang’s refusal to intervene.
Wang’s much-lauded compassion also gets tested in ’Til Madness Do Us Part. Wang had befriended a doctor at the mental hospital at the center of the film, who, no doubt endangering his position, gave Wang and two other cameramen access to the men’s floor of the institution for close to three months. From the dozens of inmates, Wang chose a few to concentrate on, including a nameless mute patient committed after he was found unable to survive on his own and a truculent peasant whose wife had him admitted because his volatility caused trouble at home. As humane and affecting as it is, ’Til Madness Do Us Part can feel invasive, but Wang goes some way toward justifying his intrusions with a textual coda that links the involuntary, unnecessary, and cruel incarcerations we’ve just witnessed to the Chinese state that profits from them. It’s one of the most damning of his condemnations of the state:
Shot between January and April 2013 in a municipal mental hospital in Yunnan Province, southwestern China—over 200 male and female inmates, all involuntarily committed either by their families or the police or courts.
Violent and non- are mixed…some for murdering, some for drug or alcohol abuse, disorderly conduct, fighting or vagrancy, some had mental breakdowns, some for “aberrant behavior” such as intense religious devotion, repeated political petitioning, or opposition to family planning laws. Others for being developmentally disabled, adrift or abandoned, unable to communicate (one is mute) or to provide for themselves.
Sometimes, as if to assuage their suffering, Wang’s oppressed people break into song. Amid the squalor of the hospital in ’Til Madness Do Us Part, a young inmate croons a melody about “a world of brilliance and beauty.” At the end of Three Sisters, one of the motherless girls warbles: “The nicest mommy in the world is mine…Mine’s the nicest mommy…Kids who have a mommy are the happiest in the world.” In West of the Tracks, a middle-aged worker offers an old Communist inspirational tune in a nerve-fraying display of patriotic karaoke at a company get-together: “The East is Red!… Reform and opening—Great prosperity…Here begins the future!”
In Dead Souls, songs are replaced by an austere polyphony of speaking voices. They recite tales of unimaginable misery in the Laogai, the Maoist reeducation camps where anyone labeled a Rightist or a counterrevolutionary—even demonstrably staunch CCP supporters—was sent for a punishing regimen of self-criticism and hard labor. Wang has addressed the Laogai twice before. They were the setting for his superb and comparatively compressed fiction film The Ditch, which was surreptitiously shot in the Gobi Desert on the actual site of a camp, and the subject of Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, a portrait of an old woman named Fengming He. In fixed, mid-distance shots, Wang records her recollections of her youth as a Maoist zealot and of her internments—first during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s, after her husband was condemned for writing critical articles during the “Hundred Flowers” period, then, after he died in the camps, during the Cultural Revolution a decade later. Wang occasionally fades or cuts but mostly leaves his camera running—one take lasts an hour—even when Fengming answers a phone call or takes a bathroom break, or as darkness gathers in her living room, the digital image tested by twilight until she finally turns on some stark illumination.
Wang tracked down over a hundred survivors of the camps between 2005 and 2017 to make Dead Souls, and he honored their courage by including as many interviews in his compilation as he thought possible. (Over six hundred hours of testimony apparently exist, and there are rumors that Wang may issue a second collection.) The film’s title is more literal than metaphorical, meant to evoke the gulag rather than Gogol. The “souls” he shows are now mostly dead; they were advanced in age when Wang interviewed them years ago and many have since passed away. Wang has returned here to the intimate, minimal approach of Fengming, with fixed-camera shots and long takes, but the images in Dead Souls are much more porous and suggestive. Offscreen noise—bird song, a baby’s babble, a distant band, a cat’s meow—often seep into the sound mix.
Early on, Wang signals his formal flexibility when he turns his camera to follow a woman wandering in and out of the scene, obliviously impinging on her husband’s interview and, most strikingly, when he records the arduous mountaintop funeral of one former prisoner. The man’s eldest son gives a stirring valediction of his parents’ bravery and values, but when he collapses in histrionic grief at the graveside, a woman chides him: “You can’t behave like that!” The inconsolable son later climbs into the grave, crying that the coffin has been crookedly placed.
There are few displays of emotion in the subsequent tales of torment and death in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps, where several thousand perished. One quiet man was shipped to the camps because the local cadre maintained that “the most docile dog is often the most vicious.” Most survivors convey their stories calmly—some laugh at their own harrowing reports—and their memories seem eerily precise. One recalls, for instance, that 270 people were deported from his camp, another that of the 238 in his camp only twenty-one survived, and everyone seems to remember the names of companions who died, mostly from starvation.
As in any account of survival in the camps, where mass famine was made worse by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, food becomes the crucial issue. The interned learned to take jobs in the kitchen to be closest to what scant rations there were, while the rest subsisted by eating tree bark, crushed date palm leaves, or bits of food scavenged from nearby train tracks. The most desperate consumed the dead, as The Ditch had already made clear. (In that earlier film, one prisoner scoops up the vomit of another from the ground and slurps it hungrily.) Urination was one of the disturbing motifs of ’Til Madness Do Us Part, in which the inmates repeatedly piss into plastic pails or onto the floor. In Dead Souls, the prisoners’ meager diet resulted in extremes of dysentery and constipation, the latter so severe that, as one survivor remembers, they were forced to extricate one another’s excrement with chopsticks.
“Those who lived through it don’t write,” claims one hard-drinking survivor of the laogai. “No one wants to discuss it.” Wang’s film, which he had originally titled The Past in the Present, disproves that bitter appraisal, though Dead Souls is unlikely ever to be seen by the countless Chinese who remain unaware of the savage suppression of the Maoist era. In its last hour it expands to include interviews with a cadre who maintains that “there was no place for compassion” in the camps and with the wife of a dead prisoner—a rare instance of a woman’s voice in the film, and one of its few openly emotional passages—as well as, most daringly, a written text, the desperate letters of a detainee whose belief that he would be saved inevitably proved delusional. At the end of the film, Wang returns to footage he shot years ago as he tramped over the site of an abandoned Gobi camp, its sere landscape scattered with human bones. In a final act of human desecration, the CCP guards left most of the corpses bound in blankets on the scrubby ground.
Wang Bing will be presenting Dead Souls, as well as West of the Tracks (2002), at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, November 16–November 18. ↩
In an interview with Film Comment (February 22, 2017) Wang explained: “There are pre-conditions for movies to fulfill, if they are to be released in Chinese theaters. In order to be released in China, my movies would have to pass censorship from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. I have never applied for this censorship exam and I never will. I think it is boring and meaningless. Ever since the beginning of my career, my one and only wish has been to be able to express whatever I want. So I will never let other people ‘examine’ my movie. I don’t need the approval of anyone.” ↩