The Dog – Lam Can-zhao (2015)

There are films that one struggles to forget. They stay with you either because they are terrible, or simply really good. Others stay with you because they’re affective in their simplicity, and really touch your heart. This fascination with films that don’t let me go has reemerged with Lam Can-zhao’s wonderful The Dog, which proposes multiple layers to the viewer about life and human relationships. It is one of many examples of a striving independent film community in China that creates a high-quality output, often without many people being aware of it because those films are not always easy to get your hands on. 

The Dog is set in Guangzhou, China, in early 2014. A mother and her daughter appear to wait for the bus on the roadside. It’s a busy road. Scooters rush by, people walk past. There is a persistently high noise level that fills the director’s long take. The camera is static. Just like the people in front of us, who wait for the bus, the camera doesn’t move. It’s patiently waiting, surrounded by a sea of noise and movement. “Action!” Someone shouts from behind the camera. Is it the director himself? Does it come from a film crew nearby? It upsets the constant stream of movement, of our being invested, hypnotised by the passing scooters. In fact, it is the beginning of the director creating an at times frustrating, yet enjoyable encounter with his film, cleverly yet cruelly cutting at moments you just want to stay with a little longer. His cuts feel brutal at times, like a book which suddenly closes on us, depriving us from further reading.

The cuts become an editorial manifestation of the dog the director follows. A stray dog. He falls out of a basket at the beginning of the film, and then functions as a narrative thread, connecting our characters, people on the margins of society; a woman who is bored to death, living on the roof top with her boyfriend who is never really there; a man whose wife is severely ill and whom he has to take care of; a woman who tries to make a living by running her own snack service. The characters are as varied as can be, yet they share the exclusion from society. They share the invisibility, the fate of being forgotten. They share a life on the margins, in the dark. But they also share the company of a nameless dog.

A dog, who travels from one character to another, because everyone has a heart big enough to pick him up, but no one has the means or the chance to keep him. It is here that the previously mentioned cuts achieve their meaning. The director leads us on. A scene is picking us up. We feel comfortable, expect to stay, but then he brutally cuts and we’re put in front of the door again. Just like the dog. A young woman picks him up. She takes her distance, caresses him with one of her feet, but eventually takes him in. While preparing to give him a wash, her boyfriend arrives. They have sex, which we observe from the dog’s perspective, who sits at the other end of the room. “Take him away. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s like there is another eye in the room.” None of her arguments stick. He wants her to get rid of the dog.

This is the beginning of a journey through the margins of Guangzhou. Lam Can-zhao shoots the city in gorgeous black-and-white. Of course, this supports a narrative of people living on the margins, in poverty, away from the buzzing life of the high street. But the director does something else, which I noticed comparatively late. The stark black-and-white is combined with a particularly tight framing. It feels like tunnel vision at times, allowing us a rather boxy view of everything. Trapped where our characters are, confined to their places, both physical (their homes) and metaphorical (in society), without the means to break through the walls that the director so effectively recreates with his aesthetics. 

It is an astonishingly claustrophobic world, which Lam Can-zhao’s dog takes us through. Uncomfortable, tight, a dark prison. The camera is often positioned on knee-height. There is no overview. There is no wide angle. There is only a small square, a snippet of a life, which suffocates Lam’s characters. In the last half hour of the film, after a gun shot, the director cuts to a slow-motion of the dog running across what looks like a dump yard. Is what we see a distant memory? Or is what we see happening in the here and now? Lam plays with time and space here, disorienting us by cutting the sound. Sound allows us a temporal and spatial orientation. But Lam remains true to his approach of locking the viewer into a claustrophobic prison s/he cannot escape from. 

Only towards the end does the tight grip loosen. Lam shows us an open field from above, the camera pans across house roofs when a Buddhist monk arrives in a village and asks a young boy for meat for the dog. There is warmth to it. The sun shines. It is a scene very different from what we have seen before. It’s as though the film begins to breathe a bit, surfaces from the darkness in order to breathe before it returns into the claustrophobic darkness. 

The Dog is a magnificent debut feature that is strong on aesthetics and narrative. It is not always overt in what it wants to say, which makes it a particularly affective film because you need to open up and feel in order to read the film, which deals essentially with the nature of being human, with loving attachment but confining pressure. The dog becomes a vehicle for the exploration of characters who each have their burden to carry. It is a gentle film, full of emotion that bubbles under the surface, tickled by the presence of the dog, but not tickled enough to be released. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film as a whole, and specific scenes in particular, will stay with me because there is something that hasn’t been said, and it’s this that sticks more than anything else. 

Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!

Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012)

I become more and more a fan of Wang Bing. I’m  making my way through his filmography in a random order, which is a shame, because I believe that you can actually see China’s economical development through the lens of his films. I can already see it when I watch his films in random order, and I’m sure this would be even stronger if I were to watch all of this films chronologically. Wang Bing is in a completely different league than Lav Diaz, observing reality rather than writing a story. Each director works in a different environment and uses different forms and aesthetics in order to record the dangerous, forgotten, sometimes humiliating present people are living through in their respective countries. What I begin to appreciate about the films of Wang Bing is the director’s observational style. His films are documentaries after all, and he observes (via his camera) in detail about what is happening in front of the camera, in front of his eyes. If I had to decide about which director currently shows the human condition best, it’s most certainly Wang Bing.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to watch Three Sisters (2012), which had been lying around in my shelf for the last two years. Because I moved three times in two years, all my DVDs were always in cardboard boxes and I had completely forgotten that I even had that film! So while looking for Christmas decoration, I also found this DVD again…that was a sign I had to follow!

Three Sisters, as the film’s title suggests, is a documentary about three sisters, who live in Yuannan, a province in southwest China that borders on Mayanmar and Laos. They live in a village with around 80 other families but without their own parents. The eldest, Yingying is 10 years old and is forced to look after her two sisters Zhenzhen, 6 years old, and Fenfen, 4 years old. Despite her age, Yingying becomes a mother figure as a result of circumstances. Her father is absent from the beginning of the film. It is not said where he is; whether he has left the family behind, whether he is a migrant worker or even whether he is dead. The same is true for the mother, who, throughout the film, is present through her absence. The children and their grandfather talk about her, but we never actually see her.

The children go about their daily lives; they dry their shoes around the fire, shoes that are broken (and which cut Zhenzhen’ ankle all the time), full of mud but still halfway usable. There is nothing else for them anyway. They have to make do with that they have, and Wang Bing shows in his documentary that those children do, like any other child probably would. They eat steamed potatoes in their own house, slowly peeling them just like the unnamed man and his daughter do in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse; the potato as a staple of our food source that helps to nourish us, but also as a symbol of poverty in that there is little else left. In the evenings, Yingying and her sisters head to her uncle and aunt, who give them one proper meal a day. In return, they help with the animals, such as preparing food for the pigs.

It’s those pigs that lead us to the first heart-breaking scene in the film. The sisters take the pigs out onto a beautiful pasture. It is unclear from the off who it is, but while we are seeing Yingying looking across a plain, one of her sisters shouts: “Does no one want me?” A simple image, a powerful message after having seen the three alone for about half an hour, if not more. The one who shouted this, twice in fact, could be Fenfen. I believe she was also the one who said towards the end of the film “Children who have mothers, that’s is the most wonderful thing in the world!” The lack of parental love does not often find an expression in form of words in Wang Bing’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Those two instances alone make clear what the three sisters really go through, and it is painful. They suffer mostly in silence, which becomes more expressive in Yingying in the second half of the film.

It is a small relief when the father, 32 years old, arrives. It is only then that we learn that he’s a migrant worker, trying to earn enough for the family in a nearby city. As the mother has disappeared (he says he doesn’t know where she is), he has no choice but to leave his children to their own devices. But he is a caring father. Once he’s part of the film, I felt that the film became a bit warmer, more affectionate. He had Fengfeng on his lap and laughed with his children. He washed them, which the children themselves never really did. At least Wang Bing didn’t show them doing so. He genuinely looks after them, and that was good to see after so many “cold” scenes which made my heart bleed. However, the father has also returned to complicate the family situation even more. He can no longer leave all three children to their own devices. His plan was to take Yingting to the city to have her work. But her grandfather said he should rather buy her a new pair of shoes and leave her with him. The father decides to take the two youngest to the city instead. Yingying, it is decided, lives at her grandfather’s, works with and for him, but also attends school. The father argues that taking Yingying to the city would be too expensive, he couldn’t afford the school fees for her. The only solution is to leave her behind.

That decision – Wang Bing follows the father with the two little girls to the bus – has an effect on the rest of the film. Three Sisters becomes a portrait of a lonesome sister, who, all of a sudden, no longer knows what to do, why she is there, what she is there for. Even though she goes to school, something we see only once, and even though she also helps her grandfather with his animals (sheep and goats), she becomes an isolated child who seems to suffer in silence. Once her sisters have left, she turns quieter and quieter, very much detaches herself from this world and from the people around her. She does her chores, but she no longer feels present at all. I often felt as though she was a ghost; she herself, like her mother in a way, becomes a present absence. It’s a remarkable change that takes place in the film, and I’m very glad that I watched the long version of the film (there is a shorter version called Alone), because that really brings the whole power of this growing loneliness and this changing character of a little girl to the forefront.

Wang Bing is superb at observing the daily lives and daily struggles of those who live on the margins of society. What I noticed once more in Three Sisters is that all of his films have a journey at its core. It’s movement, rather than stillness. In West of the Tracks, the factories are dismantled as well as all the houses that the workers had so far lived in. They need to leave and look for another home. In Ta’ang, too, there is the idea of being forced to leave one’s home at the core of the film. Bitter Money shows very young migrant workers, who leave their home to work in the city. Three Sisters has the same core theme; the father having to leave to earn money, the people in the village not being able to pay their tax will see the authorities take their cattle away, which means there won’t be much livelihood left for them. They, too, might have to leave as there is talk about destroying houses, building new ones and bringing electricity to the region. It’s a very small sequence, but it reminded me just how much Wang Bing’s films are centred around the issue of people not having a home.

With that comes restlessness, concerns, questions. All of that is deeply inscribed into the faces of Wang Bing’s characters. The director might focus his camera on China, but his films tell a larger story about where the world has been going politically, economically and socially.

Oxhide II – Liu Jiayin (2009)

Hooray! It took me almost to the day four years before I watched the sequel of Liu Jiayin’s fascinating Oxhide (2005), which struck me primarily because of its use of a tight framing and the director’s success at making us feel the lack of space in the family flat. This was not only a literal thing, however. Her parents, who had run a shop that sold Oxhide leather bags, was in trouble and I remember Liu’s father saying that he wouldn’t be able to sell anything if he didn’t put discounts on his products.

Four years after her film about family life in a small and cramped apartment, Liu Jiayin returns home to film a sequel, a different part of the family’s life in which she takes part. Oxhide II (2009) is less about oxhide leather and bag-making, than it is about making dumplings. In some ways, Oxhide II could be a perfect cooking show, but without the audience buzz, the fast cuts, without the music to create suspense as to who has to leave the cooking competition…yes, so maybe it’s not quite that. But Liu’s film is very much a record of a family tradition and after more than two hours watching this, you do get hungry!

In fact, Oxhide II uses the family’s making of dumplings as a visual shield behind which the director hides the ongoing, and apparently worsening, difficulties of the family’s business which become audible here and there in fragments of discussions between Liu’s father and mother, until she herself chips in. The film starts in a room, one would perhaps assume a sort of workshop, where Liu’s father is working on new material for his bags. The camera is set on a rather low level, possibly positioned on a small stool very close to the table her father uses for work. The position of the camera somehow does make you feel as if you’re a little child who can just about look over the table to see what daddy is doing. But the camera also brings across once more the nature of the family’s flat: cramped, almost suffocating the viewer because there is no empty and therefore “free” space to look at that could give you a break from all the items right in front of your nose. I cannot quite remember the actual aspect ration of Oxhide I but there is a strong discrepancy going on between the super wide screen used in Oxhide II and the actual content of the frame. I personally associate a wide screen always with freedom, with breathing space. In some ways, Xavier Dolan did a wonderful demonstration of that in Mommy (you can watch the scene here). What we see in Liu’s film, however, is the opposite. The frame feels suffocating because it seems too slim. The borders push down on us from top and bottom, and the content of the frame reinforces the idea of being entrapped.

All the while we see every stage of making dumplings… This is bizarre but also somewhat enjoyable, interesting, and, in some ways, satisfying. Oxhide II does not have a lot of scenes. I didn’t count the cuts Liu used, but there were probably less than ten over the course of over two hours. She keeps the camera running for as long as possible before she cuts, which is demonstrated beautifully in the very first scene in which we first see her father working on new designs. Then her mother arrives with a bunch of chives from the market, disappears into another room invisible to us, then returns with a bowl and a sack of flour in it. Liu’s dad asks, “You want to put this here already?” The reasons he asks this is that the table he had worked on will also be the table they will use to prepare (and cook and eat) the dumplings. So he needs to clean it first, which he does, and then both move the table to that there is more space in the room. The moving of the table happens right in front of the camera, and this moving changes the mise-en-scène right in front of our eyes. This change doesn’t come through a cut, which is usually the case. On the contrary, Liu allows us to witness this change, and I found it marvellous. Simply by moving the table around, the entire perspective changes for us.

This change of perspective is not only to be taken visually. What starts off as a film about making dumplings (more or less), slowly becomes a film about the ongoing business problems the family faces. Oxhide I contained quite a bit about this, and it is in Oxhide II that Liu’s mother says that after 7 years she can no longer handle the pressure of not knowing whether she can pay the shop rent or pay the workers. What sets this off is the looming fear of the contract for their shop not being renewed. Liu’s father tells himself that they wouldn’t close his shop because he designed and produced everything himself. He goes as far as saying “Shops like mine are the future!” But there is little support coming from the family and he himself knows that he tries to hold on to a business that is neither successful nor does it seem to lift the family’s living standard in any way. There is a telling scene in which the father stands against the wall, his head hanging like that of a sad dog. He realises the futility of lying to oneself and also has to fight off the continuous remarks by his wife and his daughter about the pointlessness of going on. To me, he looks humiliated, perhaps emasculated as the bread winner whose shop just doesn’t bring in any profit.

Liu changes the visual perspective (the camera angle) several times in the film. It is like seeing the process of making dumplings from every possible angle, although she hardly ever goes much above the heads of herself or her parents. The camera remains on a comparatively low level, or even goes to the very bottom, to the floor, in order to film the actual cooking process of the dumplings. Liu, all the while, is learning the process, which is funny at times. The film is not cheery at all, but Liu’s presence and her attempts at learning how to make dumplings is funny indeed! I remember the scene in which she tries to cut chives the length of 4mm using a ruler in order to determine the length… She takes the process serious, and I couldn’t figure out whether she was really like this or whether she just wanted to bring some fun into an otherwise sombre film.

I don’t think I’m able to say which of the two films I like best. They’re both very good in their own ways, and Liu certainly is a great director. There have been rumours for quite some time now that she’s working on a third instalment of Oxhide. I wonder what that one will be about…

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Mrs Fang – Wang Bing (2017)

The winner of the Pardo D’oro at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, and a brave decision of the festival jury headed by Olivier Assayas, if you ask me. I’m simply noting a few things, which I started writing while watching the film – I never do this. I never start writing my post while watching a film, but this one triggered some urgent thoughts in my head that needed to be written down immediately.

Wang Bing’s award-winning film Mrs Fang (2017) shows the last ten days in the life of Mrs Fang, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In less than ninety minutes, the Chinese director, who is usually known for his longer pieces, creates a strong, deep and powerful portrait of the most important part of life next to being born: the process of dying. In careful handheld shots, most of them in medium close-ups or close-ups, Wang Bing pictures Mrs Fang in her bed, hardly moving at times, utterly still at others. In his usual manner, he captures ordinary life because, indeed, life goes ahead for the family member of Mrs Fang. They think of the funeral, they go fishing, they eat. Life and death, often considered as opposites while they are, in fact, part of the larger nature of human existence, are perfectly captured as running in parallel.

I have tried not to read too much about the film, because what can critics say? There is nothing to analyse, nothing to make sense of. Mrs Fang is a film about a woman dying very slowly, portrayed on a big screen. I know that Wang Bing has been both heralded and slammed for bringing death to the screen, for breaking a taboo, the latter being a curious complaint given that the viewer wants his/her film to be always as realistic as can be. It can never be realistic enough, but if a film shows human death not as part of a fictional story, people are offended. The question that one should pose is, what are they really offended by? Is it really Wang Bing’s film? Or is it the idea of them dying themselves at some point, finding those images appalling because they reject the idea of death? Or do they fear that they may end up like Mrs Fang, vegetating in her bed and do they therefore prefer to close their eyes and ignore the possibility?

Wang Bing’s film is more than just about death. What I found curious is the way the family deals with it. It made me wonder about our appreciation of life and of people, of everything around us while we’re still alive. Mrs Fang’s relatives look after her, they notice every change in her breathing, her posture, even a stiffening of a tendon in her neck. They recognise details, details that had no meaning (I would guess) to them while Mrs Fang was still in the full capacity to live her life fully. They surround her, several times, and even though this might look like a curiosity show on screen, I cannot help thinking that Wang Bing is after something else: it’s only death that makes us become aware of what’s around us. The details of a person, the subtle changes in a person’s posture while sitting or lying in front of you – I’m sure you never take note of this. We tend to see the broader picture, which explains why we never actually live in the present. Only in the present would we commit ourselves to look at details, to commit time to noticing.

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. A photograph cannot portray this, it can merely show what leads to a person’s death and death itself as a fait accompli. Not, however, death itself. This is something Wang Bing has managed with Mrs Fang, and I salute him for doing so. I’m struggling with seeing my father-in-law dying slowly and have been for a while, and I myself have been wondering whether I should turn this suffering into an artistic project that creates awareness, not only of death but of certain diseases that do not allow for an ethical, graceful death. Can death be ethical in any case?

Wang Bing’s film poses ethical questions. Should he have filmed Mrs Fang in this or that way? Should he have brought it to a festival? Should he have won a prestigious award for it? But how about: why should he not have filmed Mrs Fang? Why should he contribute to the silencing of real death on screen, even though death is, actually, a major part of our lives? There is very little that you can say about the aesthetics about the film. What Mrs Fang does is pose questions. It opens a debate. This film demands more than a “I like it”, or “I dislike it”, because as soon as you start to explain your reasons for your preference, you must start a debate on ethics and death. Wang Bing has created a piece that needs to be engaged with on the level of society. It cannot be described, it cannot be formally analysed; it needs to be discussed. The usual words people use to describe a film – good, bad, amazing, awful – are insufficient, more so than with any other film.

To me personally, Mrs Fang is Wang Bing’s best film. He’s reached the height of his career. The sheer complexity he has shown by this simple portrait of death is overwhelming. Other films of his, such as Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks), are also complex and demand a thorough engagement. But Mrs Fang goes much further. It is not simply a film about death and dying, but about our engagement with it, our willingness to acknowledge what will happen to all of us, about our (non-)acceptance. 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.

Bitter Money – Wang Bing (2016)

I don’t know whether it’s only my perception of it or whether there is indeed a real surge of interest in the films of Wang Bing here in Europe. It is strangely satisfying to see an advertisement in your daily newspaper for the director’s Ta’ang on DVD, followed by the announcement of this year’s dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany) that they will host a full retrospective of Wang Bing. And then I browsed aimlessly through the website of French-German TV channel ARTE and what did I find? The director’s new film Bitter Money.

As, for instance, West of the TracksBitter Money is an impassioned look at the life of workers in China. To see these two films almost side by side is a very interesting matter. Tie Xi Qu as well as Coal Money are about (quite literally) the dirty work: extracting coal, manufacturing metal sheets and electric cables in factories that are below any health and safety standard. Especially West of the Tracks, to me, showed the older generation. There were several men in their late forties, early fifties who hoped that their children would have a better future. In some ways, Bitter Money seems like an investigation into whether this hope has materialised.

What Wang Bing’s film shows first of all is the shift in China’s economy. Bitter Money is a film about China’s textile industry with a particular emphasis on small private sewing rooms. The director does not explore the conditions in the main clothing factories, but focuses instead on the many private sewing room owners and those who work for them. As is common practice with Wang Bing, he singles out a few workers and follows them throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours running time. It starts in a claustrophobic room in which several young people sit together. It appears to be one of the girl’s last evening at home, as she is taken to the city for work. Wang Bing keeps all of this anonymous. I’m not sure whether he ever mentions the name of the teenage girl, or whether he wants her to stand in, anonymously, for all the other young people who migrate away from the Chinese countryside in order to look for work.

The girl previously said that she had changed her age on official papers, which seems to be doable in some parts of China but not in others. It’s likely that she did this in order to be considered as eligible for work. Situations are dire in the countryside and people do whatever it takes in order to earn money. The girl is making her way to the city first by bus, then by train. Wang Bing remains for a very long time in this train, a night train it seems, filming the people sleeping, exhausted from the previous part of their journey. Others play cards, but overall it’s quiet in the train. It startled me when the people arrived in the city (which is also kept anonymous, if I remember correctly) and the sound level increased immensely. You get a real sense of the bustling life in the city; the people, the cars, the honking, the sheer speed with which everything is happening.

Initially, Wang Bing follows a group of three young people, amongst them the teenage girl and her cousin. He stays with them for a little while, while they move into their new home – an austere room with only the very basics with the busy street right outside the window (“This is what it’s like when you work far from home”, one of them says) – before he shifts his focus away from them. The story of the teenage girl who changed her age to make it to the city for work merges with the story of a thirty-something woman who fled her abusive husband. I believe that this man, whom we later see hitting his wife, is the only one who is clearly named throughout the film. Wang Bing singles him out and thereby forces the viewer to recognise the man whenever he pops up in the director’s frames.

And this he does when his wife comes to see him in his shop (“their shop”, as she insists) in order to ask him for money. The marriage had been problematic since the beginning, but it boiled over when she invested in a small textile company. Now, her body is covered in bruises. Wang Bing remains outside of the shop and films the violent encounter between husband and wife, the former repeatedly threatening that he would kill her, that he would skin her alive. He repeatedly grabs her by the throat and hits her, all the while Wang Bing keeps recording. Ethics are a thoroughly interesting subject in the director’s films, and it would need another post in order to explore this in more detail. Suffice to say here that I did wonder when (if at all) Wang Bing would have interfered in this lengthy, very uncomfortable scene.

In the meantime, the teenage girl’s cousin is returning home, which sets the actual exploration of working conditions in motion. The young man complains about the long working hours – he begins at 7am and works till midnight with no lunch break – and decides that this isn’t a life for him. This is followed by the first extensive sequence showing people manufacturing clothes, seemingly in a normal house, upstairs, with only a sewing machine and pairs of scissors. It’s very rudimentary, and looks almost clandestine. There is one girl in this group of people who doesn’t look older than 14. Indeed, Bitter Money, as mentioned above, shows the young generation more than anything else, and investigates whether they have a better life than their parents had hoped for.

After two-and-a-half hours, I’m not sure I can say that they’re better off. If you look at West of the Tracks, you could say that there are less health hazards in the textile industry, at least in those areas that Wang Bing shows us. However, there is little else that sets those young people off from their parents. Worst of all is, perhaps, that they don’t have a home to go to. The workers live together in austere rooms. Their actual homes are often so far away from the city that they can’t go home without taking too many days off work, which means a huge loss of money. While workers in West of the Tracks seem to be long-standing colleagues who have spent half their lives together, workers in Bitter Money appear lonely. They work together, but they usually don’t speak. It’s about making the most shirts, the most coats during the day. Anything that can distract is avoided. If a worker isn’t fast enough, s/he gets sacked. In this way, there is a persistent change in the work force and it’s not possible to strike up year-long friendships that help the workers through hardships.

What Bitter Money shows is the individual rather than the collective. Compared to the director’s other films I have seen so far, this one looks very polished and quite deliberately edited in order to follow a three-act structure, something I have already noticed in his testimony film Fengming, a Chinese memoir. Bitter Money lacks the spontaneity that West of the Tracks showed, something that made the film unpredictable and that gave you a real sense of witnessing something. Despite my liking the film, I would say that the director didn’t manage to get to the bottom of what’s happening the way he managed it in West of the Tracks, which perhaps is down to the time spent on the subject matter. For both films, he spent over 2 years filming, but the end result is very different: there is a nine-hour piece on the one hand that contains all details of the collapse of an industrial complex, and a two-and-a-half hour film on the other that, to me, is strong, but could be much stronger if it had been given more time to breathe. I begin to wonder whether long running times aren’t best for documentaries, because you know that if a director has filmed for two years and the final product is comparatively short, a lot of material has been cut.

West of the Tracks – Wang Bing (2003)

If you hear people speaking about Slow Cinema, or see lists of films that are usually considered to be part of this genre or this movement (whatever it is), then you will hear or see the name of Wang Bing and his exceptional film Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks). With a running-time of nine hours, it’s not his longest documentary. Crude Oil tops this with an extra five hours. If there is something that characterises Wang Bing’s films, and this can be partly seen in the lengths of his films, is that he spends a lot of time with the people he films.

West of the Tracks is a cinematic document about the collapse of the industrial complex Tie Xi Qu at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, Wang Bing follows the lives and work of primarily temporary workers at factories that will close in the near future. In several segments we are told by the workers that all permanent, full-time employees have already left the factories because they were no longer being paid. What remains are groups of temporary workers, here and there. Spectres. Just like the run-down, half-empty, half-demolished parts of the factories. Wang Bing’s film is a film about absence-in-the-making. Until the end of the 1990s, over 50,000 people had been employed there. Tie Xi is both workplace and living space. Both are disappearing in front of our eyes, and so are the people.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

RustRemnants, and Rails – the three parts of the film – each focus on their own little cosmos, each part tying the knots a bit tighter on the people who try to make a living, or to simply survive. Rust is the longest part of the film and divided into two parts. The part’s four hours running time takes us through the happenings of a smelting plant, an electric cable factory, and a sheet metal factory. This part, in particular, defies the usual characterisation of a slow film being quiet and peaceful. Wang Bing’s film is anything but. If there is one thing that stood out for me personally, it is the sound track. There is a constant noise in the background. The noise in the factories is almost deafening. Only the electric cable is a bit of a respite to what Rust usually shows us. The colours are mysterious, and, partly, reminded me of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, which I reviewed on this blog a little while ago.

Rust is about the factories themselves. Wang Bing follows the workers in several scenes, but the focus remains persistently on the factories, which we enter and exit via lengthy train journeys with the camera attached to the front of a train. These journeys made me think of the first traveling shot in cinema; a hallucinatory journey through empty places and a sort of symbol of Wang Bing’s film. The director records the men at work, revealing the disregard of any safety procedures. Money is what counts. The workers have no value unless they create (monetary) value. Their health and their safety count for nothing. Rust is a document of capitalist exploitation, taking place in a communist country that refuses to acknowledge publicly that it, too, has been seduced by the ideas of capitalism and consumerism, and that their people have to suffer as a result.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

West of the Tracks wasn’t made with official blessing. It was shot clandestinely, helped by a small digital camera the director used. This film wouldn’t have made it past the state censorship, like all of Wang Bing’s films. He films what doesn’t exist officially. He writes the stories that have officially never happened. He films the flip side of the country’s enormous boom: the extreme poverty of parts of the population, the exploitation of the workforce in absolute disregard of their health and safety, the rehousing of people against their will, the frank neglect of everyone who does not belong to the top 1%.

Remnants and Rails show all of this in poignant ways. Remnant is set in Rainbow Row, the housing complex that is part of Tie Xi. In contrast to the first part of the film, Remnants is a more intimate portrait of the people who suffer from the collapse of Tie Xi. This is no longer just about the workers, but about their families. Rainbow Row is destined for demolition. The people are promised a new house if they sign up for it by a certain date. Several of the people we see in the film, however, refuse to do so, and risk being homeless once Rainbow Row is getting demolished. What becomes clear in the discussions between the people, which primarily take place in the local shop – a sort of gathering point for them because it has everything, even a telephone – is that the local councils attempt to trick the people, drastically reducing the amount of compensation they will pay to those who lose their jobs or giving them a much smaller flat which does not offer enough space for a family. As a result, some people refuse to leave their house, a protest that leads to their being cut off from electricity in November 2000.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

In some ways, Remnants is a look into the future, albeit it is set in the present. Wang Bing focuses primarily on a group of youngsters, amongst them Bobo and Whitey. They’re roaming the streets, speaking about their love interests or about their goals in life (“We’re the same”, says Bobo, “we have no goals.”). I remember one man being worried about his son. He himself doesn’t have proper education, nor does his son. Everything around them is collapsing, and it’s unlikely that his son will have it any better in future. It might as well get worse. Part of this collapse is also the collapse of the human being. The mother of Wang Zhen is diagnosed with cancer. The mood is sombre, and continuously drops throughout the rest of the film. She’s getting treatment and her hair fall out. She shows this to someone in the streets. Wang Bing keeps recording, offering no comment. We’re left with this tragic image. Remnants ends quietly, and as a complete contrast to Rust. It is quiet, almost peaceful, perhaps dead. The majority of Rainbow Row has been demolished. A few people are still living in the area, amongst rubbles, without water or electricity. “Fuck,” an old man says. “It’s as if everyone has died.”

As was the case in the first part of West of the Tracks, Wang Bing often travels by train in the third chapter of the film, aptly called Rails. Even though he depicts a group of workers again, Rails becomes the tragic ending of what we have seen before. The emphasis is placed on old Lao Du and his son, Du Yang. Lao Du has been working on the railways for over 20 years, but he was never employed. He made a living by selling whatever he could find in the complex. “It’s not easy with children,” he says. His wife left him. One of his sons works in a restaurant. The second son is still living with him. The pressure, the stress, the fear of losing everything is drowning him. One day, Lao Du is arrested, and it is not clear when he would return. At the same time, Du Yang, the son, is informed about the demolition of their place. Alone in the small house, he shows Wang Bing photographs of his family and begins to cry when he sees pictures of his mother.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

The director’s focus on Du Yang is poignant. Wang Bing stays with him, recording this microcosmos of the collapse of Tie Xi. When Yang’s father is released, Yang appears to suffer a complete mental collapse in a restaurant where he is eating with his father. He cries, he shouts, he seems to have trouble to coordinate himself, he even hits his father several times. What has happened over the years was too much for him. He could take no more. Du Yang becomes the tragic figure of West of the Tracks, a young man, who inhabits the collapse of everything around him.

West of the Tracks is a long and slow film, but the collapse of Tie Xi Du happened very quickly. In the matter of two years, people lost everything they ever possessed. Without Wang Bing, this part of China’s recent past would not have been written. It would have become part of the several other histories that disappeared into oblivion because it wouldn’t be right to acknowledge failure and exploitation. It just doesn’t fit into this image of a rising, prosperous and successful country. As he would do four years later with Fengming – A Chinese Memoir (2009), Wang Bing uses the camera not only to record history, or rather history-in-the-making, but to write history. West of the Tracks is a cinematic document that, despite its running time, needs to be seen. It is not a beautiful film. You will look for beautiful frames in vain. It’s an ugly film, it is not aesthetically pleasing. But neither is the subject matter. What Wang Bing shows shouldn’t and cannot be made aesthetically pleasing. It’s a simple document that asks to be taken as it is; raw, brutal, ugly.

People’s Park – Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki (2012)

I’m not sure where to start with this film, which, even though very similar to Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in a single long-take, reminded me of so many things except for this particular film. People’s Park and Russian Ark have a lot in common, but there are certain aspects of People’s Park, which actually made me feel uncomfortable while watching it which had never been the case with Russian Ark.

People’s Park  is set in a park in Chengdu, China. Shot in a single long-take of around ninety minutes, the camera travels through the landscape and records people’s activities during their leisure time. This is one thing that sets off the film strongly from Sokurov’s counterpart. The directors Libbie Cohn and JP Sniadecki have set up a seemingly Tarr-esque camera, a camera which has its own life, its own objectives, its own trajectory. It reminded me of Daniel Frampton’s filmind, a concept I have found mind-blowing when I read Frampton’s book Filmosophy and which I still like, especially when it comes to Béla Tarr and his use of an “independent” camera, which appears to follow nothing but its own plan. But, in contrast to the uses of an independent camera by Tarr and Sokurov, Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera feels voyeuristic. While Sokurov’s camera is a playful tool to record a walk through a museum, for example, People’s Park feels like something one is invited to watch but which one shouldn’t watch perhaps.

The extremely smooth camera is on a level of height with that of a child. The people with whom we cross paths, look down on us. The only ones that look straight into our virtual eye are the children we meet. As for the adults, we look up to them from time to time. We cross a lot of people who don’t know why we look at them, why we seem to be interested in their having a tea, in their enjoying themselves on a free day. Some people even look as if they have never seen a camera before. Indeed, why are the directors filming this and why do they force us to watch this? This could be said with other slow films, too. But there is no film I’m aware of in my repertoire which nagged me so strongly with those two questions; for one specific reason.

One thing that immediately came to my mind, after only a couple of minutes, was the ethnographic studies done with the help of film in colonised countries. I couldn’t help but think of those early films colonisers have made in far away worlds to record natives and show those portraits to their (colonising) people at home. The Chinese you see in People’s Park had very similar looks in their faces, if not the exact same look we know from early colonial film. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I wonder what the actual aim of the film was. Of course, the historical context today is different. And yet, and yet… I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis of the relationship between colonial film and People’s Park.

Two more things which came to mind while watching the film. There are definite links to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which is a superb film and was a journey through memories for me, having been born into a communist system which then fell apart shortly afterwards. And then there is this eerie feeling, just like in Akerman’s film, that there is a ghost taking us on a journey. For some reason I felt a ghostly presence throughout the film. I think it was the incredibly smooth camera, the floating movements, which had me believe that there is an otherworldly presence.

Maybe this is the reason for the questioning looks on the protagonists?

Life after Life – Zhang Hanyi (2016)

Zhang Hanyi’s Life after Life reminded me of a lot of things at once. I had a real flood of thoughts in my mind while watching the film, which I actually didn’t expect to be slow. I liked the premise of the film and I found it interesting that it was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose films The World (2004), Still Life (2006) and I wish I knew (2010) I thoroughly enjoyed. It could well be that this post will appear structureless, and abrupt. Maybe this is a good thing because, to me at least, it shows that the film has triggered a great deal of thoughts, which are only at the beginning of getting somewhere but which I’m still developing as the film grows in my head. I enjoy those films 🙂

life1

Let’s start with Zhang and Jia’s connection. You can see Jia’s influence in many scenes of the film. I would even go as far as saying that parts of Zhang’s film are very Jia Zhang-ke-esque (here’s a new term for you). First of all, there is the theme of people being displaced because of, for example, mining projects. Entire villages have to be moved. This change in environment, a change brought about by massive projects which force people to move away from their move, is also the main theme of Jia’s Still Life. But it’s not just the theme. It is also the way this subject is portrayed. I remember the dull colours in Jia’s film, and, of course, the slow pace and rhythm of the film. Zhang goes even further. I’ve been trying to think of a film which uses an even duller colour palette, but I cannot think of any.

The lack of colour is a strong indicator of what the film is about: death (I think we agree that the film’s title sounds less frightening). You can see it in every frame, and even though there is a scene in which people celebrate a the birth of a baby, it cannot stop the slow death of a village, of people, of orchards, of the past. From the first scene onwards, the film sets out to depict this slow death. This fits so well into the general opus of Slow Cinema. I have already written about the theme of death – overt or subtle – in a great deal of slow films. Life after Life is another great example, which reinforces my desire to really sit down and finally write something more substantial about the link between Slow Cinema and death. But I have two other articles to look after at the moment, so this will need to wait (good things come to those who wait, as always).

life4

Life reminded me strongly of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, especially his last feature film Cemetery of Splendour with its curious focus on the other world, the world beyond ours. Zhang’s film is carving right into this niche. A boy runs after a hare. When he returns, his mother’s soul has taken over his body. She has borrowed his body, has returned in order to move a tree. Her (absent) presence establishes a link between the here and now, and the after. Even though the film is described as a ghost story, it’s not so much about ghosts than about reincarnation with the subtle hint that life after life is a better one (at least in this instance).

As far as I know, Life is Zhang’s debut feature, and from what I could see, he is a director to watch in future. He could become a major force in arthouse cinema. He shows a great deal of patience and of intuition, of complexity in simplicity all the while speaking out against the destructing policies of the Chinese government. He allows the film to develop in its own terms. He doesn’t force the narrative, he lets it breathe. There is certainly a lot of talent visible, and it’s worth following his trajectory in world cinema in the next few years. I’ve got a feeling that he has plenty stories to tell, possibly in a slow way.