In trying to explain to my wife the importance of Wang Bing’s tripartite, 9 hour documentary “West of the Tracks”, I described it as the equivalent of a time machine transporting a video camera back to 18th century Britain and into the hands of someone like Thomas Gray or William Blake—poets appalled by the rise of capitalism. In 1999 the 32-year-old film school graduate, went to Shenyang, a heavily industrialized city, with a small rented DV camera in order to capture a moment in time when the “iron rice bowl” would become a thing of the past. While the film itself is about as unadorned as the videos that I tend to make, their impact is overwhelming as Chinese workers confront their imminent demise as benefactors of one of the 20th century’s most powerful revolutions. Now they were becoming the equivalent of British self-sustaining small farmers dispossessed by the enclosure acts.
“West of the Tracks” is not easy to come by. I was able to borrow a copy from Columbia University’s well-stocked film library, but it is worth tracking down. But for those fortunate enough to be in close proximity to Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives, I strongly recommend Wang Bing’s latest—“Three Sisters”—that opens today. It follows his long-form, cinema vérité approach but it is much more polished, even to the point of being described as an object of beauty, even as it depicts an ugly scenario, namely the bitter fortunes of impoverished peasants left out of China’s “economic miracle”.
The first part of “West of the Tracks” is aptly titled “Rust” and takes place almost entirely in the massive zinc and copper smelting plants in Shenyang as workers go about their jobs. Much of the action takes place in break rooms where they play cards or Mahjong and speculate about the pending bankruptcy of the state-owned factories that have provided them with health care, lunch, free housing, pensions and other benefits. Like their counterparts in places like Detroit or Cleveland, these are workers who are rapidly becoming redundant. The strain on their psyches is palpable as the opening scene depicts. A pointless argument in the break room leads a drunken worker to fisticuffs with those he has been annoying. As the fight winds down, he confesses that it is entirely his fault. He should not have gotten drunk.
Wang Bing’s use of cinema vérité functions both as a way of capturing lives in their messy, quotidian essence as well as a way of avoiding censorship. Just about every Chinese documentary filmmaker avoids making Michael Moore type agitprop since that would risk leading to the same fate as artist Ai Weiwei. As a gimmick that reminds me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in most of his films, Wang Bing tips off his audience that it is still a movie and not reality. In part three of “West of the Tracks”, he shows a junk collector at his home near the rail yards picking up his pet dog Maomao, holding him up to the camera, and announcing: “Look at the camera, Maomao. Let them take your picture.” In “Three Sisters”, we see the father of the three young girls, who are the subjects of the documentary, get on a bus that will take him to a nearby city in search of a factory job. The bus driver then asks him for a ticket. He replies that he has already given him one. “Not yours”, the bus driver says, “one for the guy with the camera.”
Part two is titled “Remnants” and depicts the forced relocation of Shenyang’s workers who are losing their company housing to demolition. In every case, they are not only getting smaller flats that will force at least one family member to be left out; they are also required to pay a hefty price for being given that privilege. With most of the workers already a victim of layoffs, much of the film shows them passing time in their old neighborhood as they reflect on the raw deal they have gotten. There is no organized resistance shown in Wang Bing’s film since that would risk censorship or worse but the film gives you a good idea why 180,000 reported incidents of organized protests took place in 2010.
“Rails”, the final part, is about railroad workers whose trains operate in and about Shenyang’s industrial yards. As is the case in part one, most of the action takes place on the job and in break rooms but unlike part one the workers are less stressed out since they will likely not be impacted by plant closings. Although they refer to each other as “comrade”, there is little evidence of the workers thinking in broad political terms. As long as they have a job and the money to spend on prostitutes or Karaoke bars, they will accept the new system that is unfolding. The most moving part of “Rails” involves the aforementioned junk dealer who makes his rounds in the rail yards looking for discarded metal to sell in local marketplaces. One night some cops arrest him for an unauthorized collection, leaving his young son to suffer what amounts to a nervous breakdown. It is a graphic reminder of the cruelty of those with the power to enforce capitalist law and order in the new China.
As my regular readers probably know by now, my emphasis is on politics rather than style. That being said, it is worth noting what “Jump Cut”, a magazine geared to the byways of America’s film schools, had to say:
The four shots are taken from a camera mounted on the front of a small goods train as it traverses and penetrates Tiexi District’s factories and residential areas. Snowflakes stick to the lens as if to one’s eyelashes, and this snow sticking, along with the occasional small jerk given to the camera by the old railroad tracks, serves to make the cinematography tangible, vulnerable, almost human. Thus the camera does not just observe or record; it stares, it braves, it searches, and it salvages.
If much of the film’s stylistic power is arguably unintentional, there is little doubt that Wang Bing’s latest is a finely wrought work of art.
“Three Sisters” is shot in a remote and mountainous farming village where three young girls are fending for themselves in what amounts to a hut. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and the father has been forced to look for work in the nearest city.
Yingying is 10 and amounts to the head of the household that consists of her, her 6-year-old sister Zhenzhen, and Fenfen, the youngest who is 4. Like “West of the Tracks”, the 153-minute film is made up of the quotidian existence of humble people, in this instance not only humble but also highly vulnerable. Yingying is always picking lice out of her sibling’s hair while all three have coughs that alarmingly never go away.
Their grandfather lives nearby and tries to look after them as best he can but he has his own meager existence to look after. The children have little to look forward to outside of a visit from their father who brings them new clothes from the city or to festivals in the village that provide a good meal for the hungry.
Notwithstanding the obvious suffering, there is also much inspiration in watching three children trying to shore up each other against all odds. Yingying has almost unbelievable fortitude for a 10-year-old.
The village is perpetually cloaked in a fog that lends it the aura of a Bronte novel. When Yingying goes to a nearby mountaintop to look after her grandfather’s flock of sheep, you hear a constant rumbling as if in an approaching storm. It takes a while to figure out that the sound is that of the unrelenting wind rather than thunder. Wang Bing had the bright idea to remove the windscreen from his microphone to achieve this dramatic effect.
According to a 2008 World Bank report, 948 million people live on less than $5 per day in China. One imagines that if the three children had $4.99 per day to survive on, they would feel as if they won the lottery.
Recently it was reported that Mao Zedong’s granddaughter Kong Dongmei is worth about $815 million, placing her 242nd on Chinese magazine New Fortune’s 500 Rich List for 2013. Those in China, who share director Wang Bing’s values, call these Forbes type lists “sha zhu bang” or “kill pig list.
In March 1927 Mao Zedong wrote a “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” that stated:
In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.
Surely as the conditions described in Wang Bing’s documentaries continue, there will be another “mighty storm” that will eventually sweep away the likes of Mao’s granddaughter. Ironically, despite the lack of a revolutionary party, it is a good sign that documentary filmmakers are serving as a kind of cultural vanguard exposing the rot at the heart of this vicious system. Sooner or later, the workers and peasants will mobilize as well to make another revolution to sweep “corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves” once again.