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.

Dead Slow Ahead – Mauro Herce (2015)

I wonder whether the title of Mauro Herce’s film is the most fitting of any slow film I have seen. I don’t think you can find a better title for what is shown in the film. Herce, a Spaniard, takes us on a journey through the Atlantic Ocean. On board of a giant ship – a cargo ship it seems – we spend day and night observing day-to-day events. In some ways, Dead Slow Ahead is very similar to Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Transatlantique, a superb film also set on a giant ship, also set somewhere in the ocean far, far away from civilisation. I wonder whether Herce has been influenced by that film. Some scenes, though not a lot, seemed to me to be astonishingly similar to what I saw in Transatlantique. But perhaps this is simply the nature of being on a giant ship, trying to make it look mysterious and…well, massive.

dead-slow-ahead

Dead Slow Ahead is, perhaps, a sort of photo album with sound and very little movement. In many cases, Herce choses almost extreme close-ups so that it is impossible to see where we actually are. The persistent use of close-ups transmits the feeling of claustrophobia on the ship, being somewhere, nowhere, just surrounded by huge walls of metal. This somewhere-nowhere becomes rather poignant when we hear warnings through a telephone speaker that water is seeping through the lower part of the ship. A male voice describes it as a disaster. He warns that the wheat stored on the ship gets wet. All this happens around 15min into the film. Perhaps earlier, perhaps later. Time doesn’t have a meaning in this film. Nor does space. Anytime, anywhere. What does matter is the viewer’s concern that s/he might witness a real disaster unfolding on screen. The very tight close-up shots before water penetrated the ship already creates a tense atmosphere. The persistent warnings for a minute or two only reinforces this and made me feel ill at ease.

Throughout the film, Herce doesn’t let go of this tightness. He does use long shots here and there, but they show massive structures on board the ship. We’re either imprisoned by close-ups, or utterly overwhelmed by the sheer vastness, the sheer size of a man-made monster that never reaches its destination. The film has an eerie feeling to it, not only because we are locked up in the belly of a ship without destination. Herce plays a lot with sound. There is something what I would like to call “tunnel audition” or “tunnel sound” if those terms don’t exist yet. The director silences all sounds but one, and that one is highlighted, artificially increased in volume, and muffled. It reminded me how my hearing was just before I fainted a couple years ago. It’s a very odd sensation that you cannot quite put into words, but I found that Herce’s play with sound comes very close to what I felt at the time.

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The combination of close-up images you need to decipher and a sound you cannot always locate, Dead Slow Ahead is partly a disorientating film. It challenges our expectation of certainty, but it also rewards us for staying with it. The cinematography is beautiful, stunning at times. The journey on this giant ship is haunting, it is claustrophobic. And yet, it is liberating somehow. I know that this possibly contradicts everything I have said above. But Dead Slow Ahead is a weird film. It’s imprisoning, it’s liberating. It’s ugly, it’s beautiful. It’s claustrophobic, it’s vast. It’s suffocating, it’s breathing.

What is this film? I could go the long way of bringing up Daniel Frampton’s filmind again, which I still find fascinating, but I better leave it here and simply recommend this film. To everyone! Kind of wished I could secure the films for tao films VoD. Maybe we’re lucky and it’ll happen one day!

Another Year – Another Festival

I’m not posting those things very often, but I’m delighted about the success of the slow film that is on the top of my list for DVD distribution; Another Year by Shengze Zhu. I wrote an entry about it not so long ago, a stunning three-hour long film about a Chinese migrant family eating. Well, in fact, the film is about much more and I believe this is the reason for its success. Like many other slow films that have their place on this website, Another Year uses stark simplicity in order to tell stories about the complexities of life.

Shengze’s film has been to several festivals, and the success story continues to impress. Today in exactly a month, on 26 June, the film will have its UK premiere (very important!) at the Open City Documentary Festival in London. And, best of all, the film is a Grand Jury Award nominee. Congratulations, Shengze!

And if you’re in London on 26 June, please do see the film at Open City Documentary Festival! They have more than only Another Year. The programme looks generally pretty slow. They also show Dead Slow Ahead, a film I’m still waiting to see. So go, go, go!