A Disappearing World’s Splendor and Ugliness
BY STEVE ERICKSON | Why has Wang Bing, one of the most important Chinese directors of his generation, received so little attention in the US? Anthology Film Archives has played all three of his documentaries, but even they haven’t been able to show his sole narrative film, “The Ditch” — though not for lack of trying.
Wang’s work challenges the dominant, triumphal narrative about China’s economic rise by focusing on people still damaged by communism and left behind by capitalism. His latest film, “Three Sisters,” is a documentary about a rural village where most people don’t have electricity — although we do see one family watching TV at night — or indoor plumbing. A cynic could accuse him of making “poverty porn” and catering to Western notions of China’s backwardness, but the decrepit industrial city depicted in his debut film, “West of the Tracks,” looks no worse than Detroit or other ailing Rust Belt cities.
The single biggest reason for Wang’s obscurity outside China no doubt has to do with the extraordinary length of his films. “West of the Tracks” was nine hours long; Anthology showed it divided into three parts, but even that approach included one segment that lasted for four hours. “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir,” lasted three hours, which might not sound nearly as intense, but almost the entire film consists of an interview with He Fengming, an elderly woman whose life was ruined by the Cultural Revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I think it’s a definitive account of how Mao wrecked his country, superior to narrative films like Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite,” but it requires a great deal of patience.
Anthology brings an underexposed Wang Bing to New York audiences
While “Three Sisters” is Wang’s most accessible film so far, it’s still challenging. Wang’s style of documentary is based around experience, not storytelling; he wants the spectator to feel like they have spent the film’s running time living alongside its subjects.
“Three Sisters” follows three young girls in a remote mountain village in Yunnan, China. Eighty families live there, all of them raising livestock and growing potatoes. (His subjects’ living room doubles as a potato storage bin.) Wang quickly opens the film up to take in the girls’ relatives and neighbors. His methods are elliptical at times. He gets on the bus with a man who’s leaving the village to travel to a city in search of work. One expects Wang to accompany him there — this is the only moment when one of his subjects acknowledges his presence — but the director apparently got right back off the bus and stayed in the village. (In any event, the man couldn’t find a job and soon returned home.)
“West of the Tracks” showed Wang’s eye for the expressive potential of sheer ugliness and destruction. This may seem an odd comparison, but the film came across like the visual equivalent of the attempts by rock bands like Père Ubu and Joy Division to communicate the decay of late-‘70s Cleveland and Manchester in music. “Fengming,” on the other hand, was filmmaking degree zero, made up entirely of images of the interviewee framed in medium shots — a Chinese counterpart to Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason,” stylistically, at least.
“Three Sisters” isn’t quite as visually spectacular as “West of the Tracks,” but it takes advantage of the hillside setting of the village, as well as its morning fog. Wang’s style isn’t without its ironies. The prettiest scene depicts children collecting sheep dung. Like “West of the Tracks,” “Three Sisters” reminds us that beauty and ugliness can coexist.
The New York opening of “Three Sisters” coincides with a month-long MoMA series called “Chinese Realities/ Documentary Visions,” which is mostly — though not entirely — devoted to Chinese documentaries from the past 25 years. This body of work, created largely away from the prying hands of Chinese government censors, is one of the most exciting currents in world cinema at the moment, yet it’s received no exposure at venues like Film Forum, which regularly showcases documentaries from elsewhere to enthusiastic audiences. The institutional backing of MoMA should help put recent Chinese documentaries on New York cinephiles’ maps.
“Three Sisters” is an urgent dispatch from a part of the world that’s rapidly changing. Catch it before that world is gentrified beyond recognition.
THREE SISTERS | Directed by Wang Bing | In Mandarin with English subtitles | Opens May 10 | Anthology Film Archives | 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyfilmarchives.org