Nobody will dispute the clear importance of the work being done by Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, with his unflinching, patient records of the dispossessed and disaffected of modern China. But, now that the director's austere, vérité-style witnessing has been deployed over a series of challenging works and become in the process a reference for a whole generation of filmmakers, how should we approach it?
When dealing with any of Mr. Wang's immersive documentaries, there must be a separation between the different functions of the moving image. The concept of "art" as a visual aesthetics, rather than as a whole, is applicable to the director's work in the sense of arte povera that like-minded travelers such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Pedro Costa or Lav Diaz utilize in their productions: a record of events and situations that is created as minimally and austerely as possible, a sort of neo-realism taken to its ultimate limit.
Of course, in the films of Straub/Huillet or Messrs. Costa and Diaz, that paucity of means and determination of posture can become a style in itself, with its own artistic validity. Mr. Wang, though, aims to draw attention away from himself, and focus the viewer on the human stories at the heart of his work - such as the brutal gulag of the Jiabiangou camp in The Ditch, or the hardships of the three little girls from Yunan province growing up without their parents at the heart of Three Sisters, two films that have just finished a brief, token theatrical run in Lisbon. (It's always a surprise to me when films as irreducible and blunt as these, requiring a genuine investment from its viewer, find their way to a cinema. Very few countries in the world have ever seen a Wang Bing film outside festival contexts.)
In both of them, as in previous and later works by the director, the approach is simple: long takes, either hand-held or static, shot in secret away from the prying eyes of the Chinese authorities, and without any voiceover or contextualisation; a pure record of moments. This is of a piece with Mr. Wang's "Akermanian" approach to film as a sort of an austere history of human effort, where the viewer feels every minute of the daily struggle of his subjects merely to exist and keep going; even if The Ditch is a fact-based fictional narrative (about the actual Jiabiangou labour camp) and Three Sisters an open documentary.
At his best, the director unlocks the simple humanity hiding within the daily hardships or life inside a gulag, an asylum, a brick and mud hut in the rural depths of modern China. He gives voice and face to those whom the modern world seems to have left behind (though there are cellphones and televisions all over). And Mr. Wang is certainly not filming them to make up for what the world isn't giving them.
But, at its worst, this may seem a trope deployed once too often - something like the earlier, almost entirely silent The Man with No Name or his later follow-up and companion piece to Three Sisters, Father and Sons, stretch his conception of vérité observational cinema to a pure abstraction of movement and effort, requiring from the viewer an involvement closer to that of contemplating an artwork hanging on a museum wall. At what point does his uncompromising vision of the have-nots become a counter-productive litany of misery, a sort of catalogue of unhappiness?
Mr. Wang has become the leading unofficial chronicler of the Chinese dispossessed ever since he landed with the staggering statement of West of the Tracks, but after the epic Til Madness Do Us Part (the four-hour mammoth premiered just after Three Sisters), I sensed a limit had been reached in his work, as if he had gone as far as possible within this path and a change of vantage point might be necessary to recapture what has made his work so vital and urgent in the beginning. Even at shorter lengths, his work has never been an easy viewing experience, but something like Father and Sons suggests that he may be unwittingly recycling his self-created formula without truly bringing anything new to the table, running the risk of becoming precisely what his cinema has always strived against: the hollow good conscience of the world faced with the human consequences of events.
To be sure, there is no innocence nor cynicism in his cinema utterly devoid from stylistic pretense, concerned with the way the human spirit survives (or not) among brutal, merciless environments, whether man-made or natural. But already in Three Sisters you sense that Mr. Wang may be testing the limits of endurance for both himself, as a filmmaker, and for the viewer.
JIABIANGOU [The Ditch]
Hong Kong, France, Belgium, 2010, 113 minutes
Starring Lu Ye, Xu Cenzi, Lian Renjun, Yang Haoyu, Cheng Zhengwu, Jing Niansong, Li Xianguan
Directed and written by Wang Bing; based on the novel Goodbye Jiabiangou by Yang Xianhui; cinematographer Lu Sheng; art directors Bao Lige and Xiang Honghui; costume designer Wang Fuzheng; film editor Marie-Hélène Dozo; produced by K. Lihong, Mao Hui, Philippe Avril, Francisco Villa-Lobos, Sébastien Delloye and Diana Elbaum, for Wil Productions and Films de l'Étranger in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup.
SAN ZIMEI [Three Sisters]
France, Hong Kong, 2012, 153 minutes
Directed by Wang Bing; camera, Huang Wenhai, Li Peifeng and Mr. Wang; film editors, Adam Kerby and Mr. Wang; produced by Mao Hui and Sylvie Faguer, for Album Productions and Chinese Shadows, in association with ARTE France La Lucarne.