Wang Bing – Un geste documentaire de notre temps (Antony Fiant, 2019)

It’s been quite a while since I have reviewed a book. This was primarily down to my not finding the right ones, or my waiting for certain books to be published. Slow Cinema continues to enjoy a particular attention in France, albeit it is important to note – once more – that Slow Cinema is an anglo-saxon term and if you were to look for something on the subject in French, you wouldn’t find anything at all. Reason being that those films are written about in a “normal” way, meaning they’re treated like any other film. Of course, their specific aesthetics do stand out, but there is no focus on the long-takes, on long duration, on minimalism. French writers speak about what those films have to tell (which is the most important part) and only then they say how they tell their stories.

Quite some time ago, I wrote about Antony Fiant’s Pour un cinéma contemporain soustractif (2014), which was very much a book about Slow Cinema (the first one, I believe) without mentioning the word. It was a good read, because it was so different from anglo-saxon literature on the subject. Fiant, who is professor at Rennes 2, in the city where I live (and where he also teaches a module on Wang Bing!), is back with a book on Chinese director Wang Bing. The director is clearly the most important contemporary filmmaker and the pace with which he releases films that deal with the conditions of his country is exceptional.

Man with no name (dir Wang Bing, 2010)

Wang Bing – Un geste documentaire de notre temps (2019) takes a look at all of the director’s films, with Fiant trying to group them into “cycles” or “trilogies”. One only needs to read the chapter headings in order to get more than a good glimpse of what Wang Bing’s filmography is about: “Lutter contre une amnésie historique” (A fight against amnesia), “Communautés dépossédées” (Dispossessed communities), “Individus dépossédés” (Dispossessed Individuals), “Quelle faute avais-je commis?” (What have I done wrong?). Without necessarily having seen all of Wang Bing’s films, one can gather that his country is not in a good state, nor is it developing into the right direction. That said, it isn’t surprising that the director, as Fiant correctly points out, is working clandestinely (“un cinéma contrebandier”). His films are the harvest of what the Communist Party and their political decisions sow. He gives silenced and silent histories a voice and is therefore much more than a filmmaker. He is also a historian, an activist, someone who, on an international stage, counters the official narrative of the state.

In the context of West of the Tracks, Fiant uses a term that I find interesting and also important. I wrote something similar in my thesis, when I spoke about Lav Diaz’s Melancholia. Diaz’s film contains a scene in which a group of activists dig up the remains of a disappeared person. The camera work in one specific scene differs from all other scenes. Diaz and his camera become archaeologists, who, themselves, help to uncover the dark truth behind the desaparecidos of the country. Fiant speaks of “une contemplation exploratrice”, a specific form of contemplation that seeks to explore. Even though the author uses this term in the context of West of the Tracks, I find that it describes a lot of the director’s films. The act of exploration characterises Wang Bing’s filmography. Although there are clear differences between his “mobile” pieces, such as Man without a Name, and his “static” works, like He Fengming, the act of exploration is at the heart of every single of his films.

Three Sisters (dir Wang Bing, 2012)

The subjects Wang Bing explores in his films always, without exception, raise ethical questions, as is the case with documentary cinema in general. Fiant picks up this subject time and again and he speaks, in particular, about three ways in which Wang Bing avoids crossing boundaries. What is important in the context of documentaries, Fiant argues, is the position of the filmmaker/the camera with respect to the subject. Fiant identifies an aux côtés de, a face à and an autour de. Importantly, Wang Bing is never really involved in what he films. He is present, and one can see, or even hear, this clearly. At times there is the filmmaker’s shadow visible in the frame, at others we can hear his breathing. And yet, as Fiant notes, Wang Bing remains exterior to the actual action, which can be noticed in his instinctive choices, like this beautiful scene in ‘Til madness do us part, when he follows a young man who runs around the mental hospital.

The liberty with which he films, expressed through the sheer number of hours of rushes, allows him, in parts, to contain the aspect of ethics. I was positively surprised that Fiant mentions this aspect of Wang Bing’s cinema several times, because other than his formidable Mrs Fang, none of his films have attracted such a debate, even though ethics are at the centre of his filmmaking. The same is true of the anthropological character, which Fiant identifies throughout his book. And it is those notes by Fiant, which I appreciate most. His book brings in fresh material. It is not existing material newly assembled, which we have seen several times with literature on slow films. There are actually new points you can take away with and investigate further, also in respect to other slow-film directors.

Fiant’s book is one of already three excellent French-language books on the Chinese director. Remains to be seen if, and when, there will be an English-language translation. I, for my part, hope so because they all contain a lot of good material, which should be made more accessible. Fingers crossed!

(Wang Bing, un geste documentaire de notre temps by Antony Fiant is now available via Warm Editions for 20EUR.)

Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!