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. 

Year 2017 in review

I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.

First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.

2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).

The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home MovieAkerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.

Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.

Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.

Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!

I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!

No Home Movie – Chantal Akerman (2015)

My journey through Chantal Akerman’s filmography continues. It is haunting to do this with the knowledge that she committed suicide almost to the day two years ago. I mentioned in my post on Là bas that her pain, her struggle, the weight of the past she had carried with her, was palpable in every frame. Chantal Akerman was open about this, and yet she wasn’t. She made it more (c)overt in her films, I find, than in other circumstances. The texts she wrote were full of references to her mental struggles, and yet it is her films that haunt me most. Akerman is similar to, albeit also very different from, Lav Diaz. The Filipino director equally creates a traumatic universe in this films and plays with presence and absence throughout his long films. Even though I know about Diaz’s own traumatic past, his films are less personal than Akerman’s. Whereas Diaz primarily tells the story of his country, Akerman tells her own story. She speaks about her family and the ways in which her family’s contact with the Holocaust has shaped her.

No Home Movie is Akerman’s last film. It is an intimate study of her mother, of herself, and of the relationship between the two. There have been rumours that people booed at the premiere of the film. I do not and cannot know whether those rumours are true. But if they are, they show that some people have little interest in building a relationship with a director and a film. A director is merely a machine creating one entertaining film after another. Film becomes a commodity. No Home Movie is anything but. It is not exactly beautifully shot, it is raw, unpolished. It is a home movie, without actually being one. Some of you might remember old footage of your holidays, when you were little. Our parents or grandparents show us those raw pictures, often utterly unstable which makes it difficult to watch. In the good old times of analogue film, the shaky nature of the home movie image was a classic. The shakiness often became an aesthetic vehicle in order to transmit feelings of joy. Who hasn’t seen those images of children running towards the sea with their arms high up in the air? Or of parents playing hide-and-seek with their children, a smile on their faces, enjoying the leisure, the freedom, the opportunity of being, if only for a little while, a child again.

Akerman’s No Home Movie is the opposite of all that. It shows stasis, it shows one woman ageing slowly and another trying to cope with it. The camera is often positioned on a stable surface, such as a table, recording passively what happens in front of its lens. At times we see Akerman herself or her mother in a long shot, framed with the help of door frames, which represent the mother’s apartment in Brussels as a complex labyrinth. The detached camera is a good metaphor of the distance that lies between present life and past trauma. Post trauma, you continue your life, but your life is different from that of people around you. Yours will always be a different life. I remember those painful passages in Akerman’s writing in which she evoked the silence, the detachment, especially of her mother, as a result of the family’s deportation to Auschwitz. I remember those passages in which she spoke about her dad taking her out of Jewish school, of the family ceasing to celebrate Shabbat. They seem to me like consequences of endured trauma and describe the detachment that Akerman’s camera often visually reinforces. These memories surface in No Home Movie, during long sequences of conversations between Akerman and her mother. They are a repetition of her writing.

The film is not, as it might look at first, a film about her mother. It is more complex than that. Akerman herself is present in a lot of frames. The conversations with her mother in the kitchen, over a meal, are interesting, are simple and yet have a strong meaning, because they return over and over again to the past. It is a past that has marked Akerman’s mother profoundly, and Akerman herself, although she was not directly affected by the persecution of Jews. Instead, she is the second generation that is known to have “inherited” the trauma of their parents. Theirs is a trauma that is the result of silence on the one hand, but also of overt behaviour of their parents as a result of what they have been through. These traumas can affect three generations, although the third generation (as is the case with myself) approaches this trauma from a different angle. Something that struck me is how relatively open those conversations between Akerman and her mother were in the film, knowing that there had been a difficult silence in the past. What the film shows is something I see in my own family; the older my grandfather get, the more he speaks about his trauma. It is as if they want to unburden themselves in order to be able to rest in peace, literally and truly.

No Home Movie contains, I find, a radical break after an hour. The first part of the film is a study of Akermans’ interactions with one another. They’re almost sweet, those scenes when Akerman films her mother while being on Skype with her. When her mother asks why she is being filmed, the director responds so lovingly, heartfelt: “I like filming people, but you more than anyone else.” Or “Because I want to show people that there is no more distance.” It is affectionate, a gesture that seems so personal, and yet it is there for all of us to see. The second part is a shift towards showing the last days or weeks of Akerman’s mother. The film loses its dynamic (on the level of character interaction) and becomes a slow, almost static portrait of an old woman eating less and less; sleeping more and more; remembering less and less; being confused more and more. This intimacy has certain similarities to Wang Bing’s Locarno winner Mrs Fang, which I reviewed not so long ago. No Home Movie doesn’t go quiet as deep, but one cannot deny that these two films have in common their focus on the process of dying, of saying goodbye.

In Akerman’s film, this goodbye is twofold, which gives this film a ghostly appearance. The director had said that her films were about her mother and if her mother was to die, there was nothing left for her to say. With her mother’s death, her filmmaking had lost its raison d’être. It pained me to see the final shot of the film; alone, she closes the curtain in her mother’s apartment and remains in a dark room. It stands in stark contrast to what the film felt like at the beginning. There were scenes of her driving, perhaps aimlessly, through austere landscapes, leaving the sound unpolished. Akerman wasn’t present in those shots. She focuses instead on the vastness in front of her, of the emptiness, but also of the absolute freedom that a landscape such as this can offer. In the end, stasis and death prevail. Darkness becomes a veil and a shadow that, I find, wasn’t (visually) as present in the films I had watched previously. No Home Movie is no home movie. It is Akerman’s personal farewell; a farewell to her mother, to film, to the world. A striking last film whose images and conversations will stay with me for a long time.

Mrs Fang – Wang Bing (2017)

The winner of the Pardo D’oro at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, and a brave decision of the festival jury headed by Olivier Assayas, if you ask me. I’m simply noting a few things, which I started writing while watching the film – I never do this. I never start writing my post while watching a film, but this one triggered some urgent thoughts in my head that needed to be written down immediately.

Wang Bing’s award-winning film Mrs Fang (2017) shows the last ten days in the life of Mrs Fang, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In less than ninety minutes, the Chinese director, who is usually known for his longer pieces, creates a strong, deep and powerful portrait of the most important part of life next to being born: the process of dying. In careful handheld shots, most of them in medium close-ups or close-ups, Wang Bing pictures Mrs Fang in her bed, hardly moving at times, utterly still at others. In his usual manner, he captures ordinary life because, indeed, life goes ahead for the family member of Mrs Fang. They think of the funeral, they go fishing, they eat. Life and death, often considered as opposites while they are, in fact, part of the larger nature of human existence, are perfectly captured as running in parallel.

I have tried not to read too much about the film, because what can critics say? There is nothing to analyse, nothing to make sense of. Mrs Fang is a film about a woman dying very slowly, portrayed on a big screen. I know that Wang Bing has been both heralded and slammed for bringing death to the screen, for breaking a taboo, the latter being a curious complaint given that the viewer wants his/her film to be always as realistic as can be. It can never be realistic enough, but if a film shows human death not as part of a fictional story, people are offended. The question that one should pose is, what are they really offended by? Is it really Wang Bing’s film? Or is it the idea of them dying themselves at some point, finding those images appalling because they reject the idea of death? Or do they fear that they may end up like Mrs Fang, vegetating in her bed and do they therefore prefer to close their eyes and ignore the possibility?

Wang Bing’s film is more than just about death. What I found curious is the way the family deals with it. It made me wonder about our appreciation of life and of people, of everything around us while we’re still alive. Mrs Fang’s relatives look after her, they notice every change in her breathing, her posture, even a stiffening of a tendon in her neck. They recognise details, details that had no meaning (I would guess) to them while Mrs Fang was still in the full capacity to live her life fully. They surround her, several times, and even though this might look like a curiosity show on screen, I cannot help thinking that Wang Bing is after something else: it’s only death that makes us become aware of what’s around us. The details of a person, the subtle changes in a person’s posture while sitting or lying in front of you – I’m sure you never take note of this. We tend to see the broader picture, which explains why we never actually live in the present. Only in the present would we commit ourselves to look at details, to commit time to noticing.

Photography has long been considered in the context of death; a photograph as the arrest of a certain moment, the arrest of time, a stoppage. It is said that, in some ways, photography always captures death because, once a photograph has been developed, it shows a moment that has been. But only film can capture death. Death is durational; it is a passageway; it is the passing from one state into another; it is movement. A photograph cannot portray this, it can merely show what leads to a person’s death and death itself as a fait accompli. Not, however, death itself. This is something Wang Bing has managed with Mrs Fang, and I salute him for doing so. I’m struggling with seeing my father-in-law dying slowly and have been for a while, and I myself have been wondering whether I should turn this suffering into an artistic project that creates awareness, not only of death but of certain diseases that do not allow for an ethical, graceful death. Can death be ethical in any case?

Wang Bing’s film poses ethical questions. Should he have filmed Mrs Fang in this or that way? Should he have brought it to a festival? Should he have won a prestigious award for it? But how about: why should he not have filmed Mrs Fang? Why should he contribute to the silencing of real death on screen, even though death is, actually, a major part of our lives? There is very little that you can say about the aesthetics about the film. What Mrs Fang does is pose questions. It opens a debate. This film demands more than a “I like it”, or “I dislike it”, because as soon as you start to explain your reasons for your preference, you must start a debate on ethics and death. Wang Bing has created a piece that needs to be engaged with on the level of society. It cannot be described, it cannot be formally analysed; it needs to be discussed. The usual words people use to describe a film – good, bad, amazing, awful – are insufficient, more so than with any other film.

To me personally, Mrs Fang is Wang Bing’s best film. He’s reached the height of his career. The sheer complexity he has shown by this simple portrait of death is overwhelming. Other films of his, such as Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks), are also complex and demand a thorough engagement. But Mrs Fang goes much further. It is not simply a film about death and dying, but about our engagement with it, our willingness to acknowledge what will happen to all of us, about our (non-)acceptance. Mrs Fang goes deep, deeper than any other film I know dealing with the human being, the human as a living creature whose life is finite.