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…

Another Year – Shengze Zhu (2016)

A three hour long film about people eating – admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a must-see film. And it’s not even just three hours of people eating. It’s three hours of long slow takes as well. We’re not exactly speaking of fast food here 🙂

Another Year should, nevertheless, be on your must-see list for this year. It is an essential slow film to watch and is already my slow film of the year. Shengze Zhu draws a portrait of a Chinese migrant family. This is more than just about eating, although, if you are no more than a passive viewer, you could easily think that. I remember the time when I was younger. When my siblings were still home, dinner was always the time when we were together and talked about our day. It wasn’t dinner. It was a social gathering. Yes, we came together over food, but I found that it was more about exchanging our thoughts and feelings than about the actual process of eating.

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Those memories resurfaced when I saw Shengze’s film. The film has a very simple, but effective structure. It is divided into 13 months. Every meal in a certain month is shown in one long-take. In some cases, Zhengfan Yang, the cinematographer – also known for this films Distant and Where Are You Going? – uses medium long to long shots, partly framed by the inside of a house. A thoroughly engaging approach, because it plays with absence and presence.

In a way, Another Year is an extension of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, which is all about making dumplings. In Another Year, you don’t see the cooking. It’s all about eating, and, funnily enough, they do eat a lot of dumplings! The kitchen is something that only exists in the off. It exists in the film’s sound, but the director doesn’t go beyond that. What she does make clear – both through off- and on-screen presence – is the absolutely invasive presence of the television, which is running almost all the time. It adds to the already claustrophobic nature of the room where most of the film is set.

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Why did I remember my childhood when I saw the film? Another Year tells the story of a family, which unfolds during dinner time. In January, the father comes home and the mother complains that she cannot stand her mother-in-law. In February, the mother-in-law has a stroke and is only talked about because she’s in hospital. In March, the mother has moved with her two smallest children to the house of her mother-in-law to look after her. And so it goes on. Every month, every meal, tells a new part of the story, which you have to piece together on the basis of the dialogues you hear. You cannot just sit and stare at the screen. Shengze Zhu asks you to be active.

And if you are, then you notice the currents below the surface. Another Year is drawing a picture of a family under pressure. The film is not a picture of happiness. If anything, the film is a portrait of frictions, of arguments, of anger and of impatience. No one in the film seems to be really happy. It often appears as though life is a chore, and yes, the mother does utter this early on in the film: “My God, why is life so hard?” Money is scarce. She has three kids with her husband being at work all day. Towards the end, she actually complains about this, but it is not even clear what she wants because she feels offended when her husband offers to stay home to look after the kids while she goes out to earn money. So what do these characters want?

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The oldest daughter wants new shoes. Then she wants new socks. And new chopsticks are also necessary. There is an almost constant “I want this – I want that” in the film, but because of the family’s poverty, the characters are stuck and do not seem to be able to move forward. This is shown quite literally by the framing, which is predominantly claustrophobic. The camera is often positioned in a small room where the characters eat, sleep, watch TV and play. It seems as though their entire life plays out in the very room we see in front of us. It’s not a surprise that frictions and arguments are almost a daily routine. There is no breathing space. Nor is there any light. I found that the entire film was pretty dark. Natural light was scarce. I’m aware that the family eats in the evening and that in some months there is no more natural light at that time. Yet, I do believe that the lack of natural light is indicative for the family’s misery. The claustrophobic space and the lack of light are enough to get a sense of unhappiness, of frustration, also indicated by a lot of shouting and accusations between the characters. The dialogues are – at least for this point – not necessary. Their mood, their thoughts, they are all visualised by the film’s aesthetics.

Another Year sounds like a pretty simple film, and yes, it is based on a very simple concept. In the end, we see thirteen family meals, although we don’t really see that, because the family never sits quietly together, and eats. They’re often all over the place, especially the young children. But this simplicity, which I have seen so often in other slow films is giving us a complex picture of an unhappy, poor family, and a society that is still haunted by the one-child policy. It gives us an insight into their lives, into their concerns – simply, by being. Shengze records this being, and captures a fascinating view on a modern working-class family in China. A three-hour long must-watch!