THERE IS A BLUNTNESS, even a brutality, to Wang Bing’s documentary films, which typically plod at an agonizing pace—’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), filmed inside a men’s mental hospital, lasts three hours and forty-seven minutes; Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, his 2002 debut, examines a declining industrial area for just over nine hours; Crude Oil (2008) devotes fourteen hours to the daily activities of oil field workers. Unlike typical exercises in “slow cinema,” as minimalist long-take auteur filmmaking has come to be called, Wang’s films produce a brutal effect that lies not merely in their length or their unpleasant subject matter but also in the way they are made.
In recent years, there has been a shift away from the lo-fi aesthetic that enjoyed vanguard status at the end of the last century, from the advent of punk through the 1990s. This change is due in large part to a flourishing of affordable, easy-to-use technology. Wang’s films tend to be shot on cheap, handheld digital devices, the director often working with a crew of zero. There is a deliberate, even disturbing artlessness to these works. In Tie Xi Qu, dirt, grime, and water stains can frequently be discerned on the lens—an appropriate sullying, given that the entire film takes place in the heavy industrial zone of the city of Shenyang in northeast China, but a shock in the era of Photoshop perfection.
The three-hour Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) is a sustained reminiscence by an elderly woman, a once-staunch Communist who lived through the entirety of Mao’s reign, from the Liberation in 1949 to the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s to the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, and was purged and rehabilitated repeatedly. The film was shot mostly in her living room with a single camera on a tripod, in extremely long takes; when the interviewee gets up for a bathroom break, Wang leaves the camera running, we hear the toilet flush in the next room, and she returns to the couch and resumes her monologue. The only interjection Wang himself makes is to ask her, once the sun goes down, to turn on a lamp.
The bulk of Father and Sons (2014)—a film about a Chinese migrant worker family—is similarly static. Running a mere hour and a half, it focuses on a teenage boy sprawled on the bed he shares with his brother and father in their one-room, dirt-floor hut, his attention wavering back and forth from the glare of the off-screen television set to the screen of his mobile phone.
But Wang’s filmmaking isn’t all fixed camerawork and long-duration shots. In fact, it’s often animated by a wandering agency. Although the camera never quite becomes a character per se, the filmmaker’s consciousness is constantly referenced by the camera’s movements. In ’Til Madness Do Us Part, one of the subjects in the mental institution darts out of the frame and begins running through the hallways; the camera hesitates for a few seconds, then suddenly begins chasing behind him. Tie Xi Qu boasts a similar scene in the factory’s break room, where a worker strips naked while giving one of the film’s countless tirades on financial duress. He then brusquely walks out. The camera lingers briefly, then rushes to the door, pursuing him down the hallway and into the shower room. These moments of hesitation, instead of being edited out of the film, as would be done in a conventional documentary to create a more polished product, become vehicular forces of momentum, reasserting cinema’s affirmative presence as an art that is human, all-too-human.
Wang teaches a lesson that is apparently not taught in film schools any longer: when your material is good enough, you don’t need very much in the way of technology to make a moving, potent film. He also exhibits starkly naturalistic but knowingly composed photographs related to his projects—images no less empathetic for their formal refinement. The richness of Wang’s works lies not in their budget but in their human resources—namely, his subjects, who more often than not are very poor. Wang’s primary concern is with the losers of global capitalism. Without attempting to manipulate the viewer emotionally, using only the sparsest narrative machinery (occasional textual interjections supplying pertinent background information), Wang sheds a dignified light on people who otherwise have no great social standing or expectations.
WANG'S SIGNATURE setting is as vast as the running time of his films: China—immense and geographically diverse, with the largest population on earth. With the country enjoying an economically prestigious moment of late (ranking second in GDP, surpassed only by the US), representations of glitz and glamour tend to predominate in the country’s popular culture, and it is these images that the People’s Republic prefers to export. For this reason, Wang’s films enjoy no significant audience in China. While his works tend to do extremely well on the Western festival circuit—debuting and often winning awards in Venice, Berlin, and Lisbon, and occasionally showing on European television—they are too close to real life to satisfy the escapist needs of a contemporary mainstream Chinese audience; frankly, they may also be too locally specific in their focus to interest a wide international audience of everyday filmgoers.
Those drawn to Wang’s films must have—or be open to—a concern with people existing on the margins. Two and a half hours in length, Three Sisters (2012) follows the daily lives of a trio of female siblings, aged four to ten, living in a small rural village near the Burmese border. They have effectively been abandoned by their father and mother, both of whom have left to seek work in a nearby city. The small girls are thus forced to live simultaneously as adults and children, taking care of quotidian chores while seeking out moments to explore and play. ’Til Madness Do Us Part was also shot in rural China, where mental patients are kept in appalling conditions. Many of the men have been confined there simply for refusing to work or for expressing critical views.
Given that these films are more often than not consumed by Western audiences, Wang has gone to great lengths to distance himself from the hasty conclusion that his is a cinema of critique. He states in a recent interview:
I don’t think I am a dissident and I don’t think my films are “political films.” I am not a “political filmmaker,” because I have no political claims, no political program, no political agenda to put forward. I am interested in the personal, inner life of the individuals who live in Chinese society. What I try to do is just to look at life and put my personal experience and my past in relation with other people’s personal experiences. I look at human everyday life and of course, by doing so, I bring to the screen everyday life issues, some of which are the so called “problems of society.” I repeat: personally, I have no political purposes and ambitions.1
Immediately after making this statement, however, Wang seems to contradict himself.
It is true that in my films there are moments in which political affairs are discussed, but this is normal, because in China a lot of things are directly influenced by the Communist Party and politics is everywhere. If I decided to omit the relation between political context and everyday life in my films, then I’d be a “political filmmaker”: in fact, in the China of today, the real “political films” are those that carefully avoid mentioning anything political.2
Thus Wang implies that it is possible to read his works in a nonpolitical way, but to do so would be to surrender to naïveté. While his films might not be overtly political—in the blunt, activist way that Ai Weiwei’s artworks are—his oeuvre has always been loaded with political content. From the beginning of his career, Wang has effectively portrayed, in stark terms, the breakdown of China’s former socialist economy and the transition to the hyper-capitalistic economy of today. The factories portrayed in Tie Xi Qu once employed several thousand workers. At the time of the filming, between 1999 and 2001, most of the factories were down to several dozen employees, many of whom were working at reduced salaries—when they got paid at all. Throughout the film, the employees say repeatedly, about themselves and their colleagues, that they are the ones left behind, the ones either without capital to go into business on their own or unable to figure out how to do so.
That such factories were once the settings of domestic and international propaganda espousing the superiority of China’s socialist system is an irony that should not be lost here. In his meta-critique of Socialist Realism—which could indeed be unintentional, though I would be surprised if it were—Wang breaks with its “red, bright, and shining” dictates to examine the true particularities of people’s lived experience, which can never be scripted:
In China—and in Chinese cinema especially—there are very few narrations focused on individuals. Very, very few. They prefer to tell the Grand History of the People, of the Nation, of the Party. As for me, I am a filmmaker who focuses on individuals: nobody forces me to film the History of the Nation. It is not at all my vocation. I am interested in the individual within the Chinese society, I want to tell his or her specific and concrete story.3
The individuals that Wang focuses on are neither good nor evil; rather, they tend to be too invisible even to matter. The concern of his least-known film, Man with No Name (2009)—an hour-and-a-half work about a hermit in the wilderness—might apply to every subject of his interest. A teller of stories not ordinarily destined to be told, Wang produces cinema of the highest eminence, whose rewards are well worth its demands.