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!).

The Ditch – Wang Bing (2010)

Wang Bing’s films have been high on my watch list for quite some time.¬†West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary, is still waiting for me. But DVDs can be exceptionally patient, more so than humans! I finally got round seeing¬†The Ditch (2010) after a recommendation by Michael Guarneri, who thought that the film’s content chimed well with my work on Lav Diaz. And it sure does, and yet it’s so very different.

If you’re looking for a nicely photographed film, then¬†The Ditch is not for you. It’s a simple film. The style is pretty rudimentary at times. I’m not saying that Wang Bing has chosen to make the film look amateurish on purpose. Nor am I saying that he cannot do any better. For some reason, regardless of the director’s reason and background, the style fits well to the content. Set in 1960,¬†The Ditch tells the story of inmates of Jiabiangou, a “prisoner correction camp”, or simply a labour camp, in the Gobi Desert. The film was shot without official permission on the actual location. So that gives you an idea of how far Wang Bing is willing to go in order to tell repressed histories of his country. It also explains the rudimentary aesthetics.

Wang Bing is best known for his documentaries, and if you didn’t know that¬†The Ditch is supposed to be a feature film, you could be fooled. I found the aesthetics very documentary like. I had the feeling that Wang Bing was present at something that was, in reality, unfolding in front of him. It may have been the handheld camera. It also felt as though the characters didn’t mind the camera. They just “lived” their roles, so I felt torn between what¬†The Ditch really was; documentary or fiction. I knew that it couldn’t be a straightforward documentary, and yet the aesthetics reminded me of it.

The film is a strong image of suffering and slow death, exactly what you find in Diaz’s films. But it’s portrayed more head-on, down-to-earth without any intention to create something special. This would have turned the suffering into spectacle. By remaining at a distance, Wang Bing counters this risk.

I do feel as though¬†The Ditch should have been longer and I’m not saying this because I like long films. In order to get to the bottom of such a subject and the psychology of the characters you need to spend more than 90 minutes with them. I’m aware of the restrictions the secret production brought with it. Nevertheless, an hour more would have been sufficient to add more power to the film.

The prisoners suffer from cold and hunger. One inmate is seen eating the vomit of another. Another is killing and cooking a rat, for which he is later punished. We also learn in conversations between characters that inmates cut flesh off dead inmates out of sheer desperation over their hunger. The characters’ psychology isn’t as visible as it is in Diaz’s films, which use their duration in order to demonstrate the power of the concentrationary system, i.e. terror, degradation, reducing the inmates to bare life, aiming for psychological disintegration.

And because all of this needs time (the main component of the concentrationary), the film is too short for its in-depth portrayal of the subject. It’s good but too short. Some shots are beautiful and give you a sense of the vastness of the Gobi Desert. There’s no escape possible for the inmates. There’s nothing but emptiness surrounding them. There’s no hope. Even if you tried to escape, it’ll likely mean death. Nevertheless, I would like to see¬†The Ditch¬†as part of a bigger project, a project that positions time/duration more in the centre because it is essential for this subject.

I believe that¬†The Ditch¬†needs a second viewing. I became extremely irritated by the arrival of a female character, who shattered my¬†sensation of seeing something unfolding in real time. She’s the wife of an inmate who had died 8 days earlier and I don’t understand Wang Bing’s decision to include her. His film was extremely focused, to the point, and powerful. The woman was terribly artificial in her acting. She was over the top and got on my nerves. I found her unrealistic. Coming from the city, carrying a handbag – that’s fine. But carrying the handbag around in the desert while looking in despair for her husband? Taking shovel and handbag? And while the men are all wrapped up and freeze, she can stay a night without blankets and is perfectly fine.

It all felt like stupid mistakes as seen in Hollywood films; completely over the top, nonsensical things. With her arrival, I became impatient with the film, which until then had been great. The female character was not necessary and took away screen time for the actual portrayal of suffering. This may be the reason why I thought that the film was too short.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to more Wang Bing films. I was my first, and certainly not my last!