Wang Bing – A filmmaker in today’s China (2014)

I quite like how much material there is in France about Chinese director Wang Bing. I had always thought that he was as invisible academically as is Lav Diaz, but that isn’t the case at all. He is very much so in the English-language world. But France proves itself to be a hub for good literature on slow-film directors. At least something good that has come out of my moving away from the UK! ūüôā

The book¬†Wang Bing : Un cin√©aste en Chine aujourd’hui (2014) is the result of a symposium held at Aix Marseille University. Despite is having its root in an academic symposium, the book is written for the general public. It is not a book which only film students would understand. It is not tirelessly theoretical either. It’s a joy to read, in fact, and it opens up the oeuvre of Wang Bing to whoever is interested, professional filmmaker or lay film viewer. What is particularly interesting are the interviews that have been conducted with the director. It’s not so much interviews even, they are more three conversations. I learned with Diaz, whom I interviewed for over three hours at the Locarno Film Festival in 2014, that this is how you get the most interesting facts out of a filmmaker, and this seems to be the case with Wang Bing, too. The book opens with the first interview which was conducted in summer 2013, and ends with a third one which had been conducted concerning Wang Bing’s¬†Til Madness Do Us Part (2014).

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The first interview tells you a lot about Wang Bing as a person and as a director. It fits very well into my research of¬†filmmakers (with a particular focus on slow film directors) telling silenced histories, histories which are not in school books or in official discourses. I know that Filipino director Raya Martin pointed out just how important this is to him. Wang Bing himself wasn’t aware of the dark history of his country. His work on The Ditch¬†(2010) and¬†Fengming, for example, stems from a book of testimonies he had been given. He read the book in one go on a flight to Paris. After that he noticed that he didn’t know his country. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard several filmmakers saying this, and it’s this not-knowing which leads to investigative feature and non-fiction films the way we see it in Wang Bing’s films, but also in Lav Diaz’s or Raya Martin’s.

Wang Bing often works clandestinely, which gives him the freedom he needs to make the films he wants to make. He points out repeatedly that going the official way in China would mean he couldn’t make any films. His small digital camera gives him the chance to go out and film when he wants. Having read this book, I understand that Wang Bing’s work is very organic. If something strikes him, he immediately goes out to shoot.¬†Over and over again, he praises the digital revolution, which has helped not only him but many filmmakers around the world, especially those living in poor and remote areas.

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The three interviews plus the one conducted with the director’s producer Lihong Kim gives a detailed and very interesting insight into the director’s work. On top of that, for further contextualisation, the editors of the book have included, for instance, letters written by Jiabiangou prisoners which have then been used by Wang Bing for his film¬†The Ditch. In two chapters, Wang Bing can express himself, which is great. There is a real collaboration apparent between the editors of the book and the filmmaker, something I value a lot. Especially now, after having read that Wang Bing initially received no money at all from the distribution of¬†Tie XI Qu¬†(2003) in France, a shameful and shocking practice (I’ve been told that this has changed in the last couple years and that the director is finally getting paid). Anyway, Wang Bing wrote a chapter on the image as evidence of the real. He speaks about two photographs from Jiabiangou he has been given, photographs which impressed him and which he used for¬†The Ditch and his larger project on the history of the camp. The chapter is a poetic meditation on those images and the story they tell.

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The second chapter in which Wang Bing was involved is a thoroughly interesting one, because it is a project description of a film he hasn’t been able to finish yet, because of a lack of funding for the post-production. I’m very interested in this project because it feeds into my research into the concentrationary, which I discovered in the context of Lav Diaz’s films. The film’s working title is¬†Past in the Presence Tense. As far as I can tell from the director’s project description, it’s going to be a film with a running time of eight hours or more. It is part of the filmmaker’s investigation into the history of labour camps in China, and is supposed to contain primarily interviews, possibly in the ways we have seen in¬†Fengming, a Chinese memoir¬†(2007).¬†Wang Bing intends to create the most comprehensive history of Jiabiangou on screen. This sounds like a superb and very important subject. Sadly enough, the funding is missing and I wonder whether something could be done, and if it’s crowdfunding by is supporters. This sounds like a project that must be done by all means.

There’s plenty more good stuff in the book. The editors have managed to create a comprehensive work that is faith- and truthful to the director, who himself is involved in the project. There is material on Wang Bing’s use of space and time; on his desire to investigate a China he doesn’t know; on his tendency to show people on the margins of society; on his interest in showing the body, the human being, the way it moves, the way it struggles; and on the importance of being a mere observer. The book is slim but it is full of insights on the Chinese director, one of the most interesting personalities in current independent world cinema. Highly recommended (if you can read French!).

Fengming, a Chinese memoir – Wang Bing (2007)

It must have been a year or two that I watched my very first Wang Bing film. Stupidly enough, I chose¬†The Ditch, a feature film which I know wasn’t really his thing. It was a good film, but didn’t quite give me a sense of the director’s brilliance. Now that I have more time for actual film viewing beyond PhD research, I’d like to return to Wang Bing’s oeuvre because I’m aware that there’s plenty to see there, not only in terms of the number of films he has directed. I mean that in terms of content as well.

Fengming, a Chinese memoir had been on my list since the PhD. I knew that it was a three-hour interview with a woman who had survived a labour camp under Mao. I thought I could bring it together with my work on “the concentrationary” in Lav Diaz’s films, but I could never make it work. Now I have a clear mind and a new angle from which I’d like to see the film. So I returned to it last week and was taken by it. Parts of¬†Fengming’s testimony became, in effect,¬†The Ditch, an almost word-for-word translation of her testimony into a feature film. I haven’t read up on why the director choose to do so. I don’t think he has done it with his other documentaries. This one stands out because¬†Fengming is not just a documentary, not just a testimony on screen. It has taken on a life beyond that and unraveled as a feature film three years later.

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In some ways, perhaps, his feature film might draw in more people because there is, quite obviously, more happening, even though it is nevertheless a rather slow and austere film. Fengming, on the other hand, is quite a difficult film to sit through. It is an exercise in listening, something I believe we have forgotten but something that is so vital when it comes to testimony. Wang Bing doesn’t try to hide the nature of testimony. He’s aware that it usually comes in all details. Fengming starts by saying “I should start at the beginning”, and so she does. She not only tells us about her experience in the labour camp under Mao, but also explains the conditions that have led to her imprisonment. With this, the film makes explicitly clear that in order to prevent those things from happening again, it is not enough to know only about the actual atrocities. It is important to know how these things came into place in the first place, how they could happen, what the societal and political structures were like at the time. Only then can we draw comparisons to similar situations happening nowadays.

Wang Bing¬†sets up his camera in¬†Fengming’s living room without ever moving it. There are few and rare changes in shot distance, ie he shifts from a medium shot to a medium close-up, but he keeps to to the bare minimum. And because he does so, and because there is little relation between the shift in shot distance and what Fengming says (as is generally the case in popular cinema where shifts in shot distance are a cue for something important), these shifts function as ruptures. They’re startling. I couldn’t figure out why Wang Bing initiated those shifts. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to figure it out either. But I believe that they disrupt the actual viewing of a testimony in progress.

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From the beginning, Wang Bing sets out to record a testimony without interfering in the actual process.¬†During the process, the daylight faded, and so does Fengming’s face. It is only after quite some time that Wang Bing asks Fengming to turn on the light. If Fengming needs to go to the bathroom, she does so, all while the camera keeps rolling. If the phone rings (or a door bell?), then Fengming leaves the room to check. Again, all while the camera keeps rolling. It looks and feels very natural, until¬†the director cuts…either away from Fengming or in order to change the shot distance. It could easily be because of technical constraints, but I think Wang Bing is working in digital, so the length of film at least should not have confined him to shooting for only¬†ten minutes.

Fengming isn’t an easy film. It requires you to sit for three hours and listen to a single person. It could as well be an audio book, and I would be inclined to say that people would find an audio version of the film much easier because they can do other things while listening to Fengming. But this isn’t really the point.¬†This isn’t the point of testimony. There needs to be¬†a listener present for testimony to be help- and useful. With “present”, I mean physically and mentally present. There is a screen between Fengming and us, but if we sit down with her, I see us as taking part in her testimony.¬†We have a responsibility to listen, to be there to take part in this process of remembering and keeping it alive for future generations.

There is obviously more to say about the film. Plenty more, which is perhaps surprising given that it’s so austere. But I’m developing an article at the moment and don’t want to go into too much detail here right now. More will follow soon!