Dead Souls – Wang Bing (2018)

It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation. 

His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off. 

Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.

Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts. 

Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like. 

In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp. 

A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different. 

Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors. 

“You lose your humanity.”

“It had become banal to see dead people.”

“People no longer resembled human beings.”

Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women. 

The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls? 

Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day. 

“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”

“Only death could have ended that suffering.”

Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then. 

For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors. 

But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul. 

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! 🙂

The book Wang Bing : Un cinéaste 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!).