Festival Roundup: DEAD SOULS (2018, dir. Wang Bing)

This series will highlight films that have played and will be playing at various international film festivals, from Berlinale in Germany or Locarno in Switzerland to Toronto International Film Festival or New York Film Festival. The latest film under discussion premiered at Cannes and screened recently at TIFF. There are plans for release in US through Grasshopper Films.

Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing is known primarily as a documentarian who operates frequently with a long form verité style. The most famous of his films is his 9-hour long debut, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), a presentation of and immersion in the decline of a north-eastern Chinese industrial area. The underlying philosophy in Wang’s work, as it operates largely in this tendency toward maximum length, is stimulated by his rejection of “the way documentar[y] production is controlled, the way it is influenced by conventional methods of media and news production”. It’s a rejection of particular approaches to story and narrative, and the limitations each place upon the filmmaker, which Wang summarizes as an adoption of “the experience of all the films which were shot before.” Instead, Wang’s cinema displays a philosophy of production that has emphasized experimentation with “time, personages and the documentary, to combine these elements into a narration.” It is a philosophy aimed at using time in such a way that the viewer is cracked and absorbed into the film, and into the life it captures in a manner heretofore un-shot. A brief consideration of the majority of his output and the duration of each work only makes obvious the nature of this philosophy and the singularity of the method: He Fengming (2007, 186m), Crude Oil (2008, 840m), Three Sisters (2012, 153m), ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013, 227m), Ta’ang (2016, 148m), 15 Hours (2017, 900m), and finally, the film under discussion in this writing, Dead Souls (2018, 495m).

Dead Souls concerns the history of two Chinese labour and re-education camps, Mingshui and Jiabiangou, that began operation during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-1959. From 1957-1961 some 2500 “rightists” would endure these camps in the north-western province of Gansu, where—as those detained failed in their task to irrigate desert land so it could be transformed into a thriving town for re-education—a slow descent into mass starvation, occasional cannibalism, and thoroughgoing abjection resulted in 2,200 deaths. Wang filmed the movie over a span of approximately 12 years, conceiving of it primarily as a document to the existence and reality of the camps from the perspective of the few living survivors, many of whom are found to be in their late 80s or early 90s upon the time of filming. Yet, the film is not simply an eight-hour series of survivors recollecting their suffering, but more strikingly captures the revisionism and suppression the facticity of the tragedy has received over time socially, bureaucratically, and politically. One sees this in the failed attempts of survivors or their relatives to memorialize the site or the efforts of the government to redevelop, hide, and destroy the camp. With all of this in mind, one can’t help but feel a deep prescience to the material as it is watched, an almost race against time, as both strands of recollection and suppression are interweaved, because following the vast majority of interviews, the viewer is informed that the survivors in question died in the years succeeding their testimony.

One senses that the injustice of this place and experience has incensed the filmmaker. The simple facts that brought so many men and women to the camps are in themselves striking: in numerous cases, workers, intellectuals, and party members who—emboldened by the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956 that encouraged the open expression of opinions about the Communist Party of China’s governance—aired their views and opinions on numerous matters (e.g. corrupt officials, mismanagement, an ideological difference), only to see the campaign be twisted into an Anti-Rightest movement that would sweep up hundreds of thousands of those who spoke of their grievances, tarring them rightists. Yet, it is the horrors of these camps—beyond the gross deception of the 1956 campaign—that is the true object of Wang’s focus and ire. In point of fact, in Wang’s filmography one could speak of a Jiabiangou trilogy: He Fengming, The Ditch (the Chinese name of which is Jiabiangou), and Dead Souls. He Fengming is a three-hour presentation of the life and difficulties of the wife of a victim of the camp, while The Ditch is an adaptation and reimagining of a survivor’s memoir. Dead Souls is, then, in some sense a massive appendix wherein all the influences, sources, and research become clear, even as it furnishes and culminates what has been realized and investigated in other forms. Here the stories and present-day activities of survivors, relatives, party cadres who managed the camps, and contemporary residents of the site meet, alongside startling footage of what little remains unhidden of the camp itself.

The film is, of course, deeply confrontational in the Chinese context, as it presents openly and thoroughly the realities of a time, from struggle sessions to inter-personal and -communal bitterness, that few feel they can safely recount, even without having been a camp survivor. The time spent with the party cadre is highly illuminating, as one senses the extent of fear and distrust in a political and bureaucratic context, wherein one could find oneself labelled a rightist and member of a camp for even displays of empathy. Further recollections of the nature and deployment of policy are striking in getting at the fictive elements and power relations of the time, wherein it was deemed that there must be two rightists for every twenty people and quotas had to be met, so the rightists were found—your neighbor, your enemy, your accuser. The film serves, again and again, to put in front of the viewer what few openly speak of: the ruthless treatment of peasants, workers, intellectuals, and political opponents alike, and the gross discrepancies in power that have been weaponized to silence and disenchant a populace once hopeful of mass input—even if Western defenders of Maoism imagine there was some bilateral mass line between Party and people. These issues of silencing and control are still ongoing for, as recently as two weeks ago, Chinese citizens who formed an online group to translate subtitles for the film were visited by the police and told to cease operations.

“There’s no people,” claims Wang Bing regarding the films and filmmakers of what is regarded as the ‘Fifth Wave of Chinese Filmmakers’ in the Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema documentary. He finds in much of Chinese filmmaking, and in this generation specifically, what he refers to as a collective cinema, full of signs and types that fail to meet or capture reality. In his admiration for the sense of history and memory present in the Taiwanese New Wave, the subject of the documentary, one gets a deeper sense of Wang Bing and his own work. He is interested in people and cinema–in finding a person, their memories and history, and enabling an expression in film. In his filmography, he has refused the scripted and organized forms of a The Search for General Tso or a The Death of Superman Lives, wherein everything is known about the film prior to its beginning. Wang prefers a style of documentation that allows him to find an understanding of the film as it is made, wherein history, memory, life, and person enter into a discovery of narration and structure that eschews previous cinematic experience.

Lastly, again in Flowers of Taipei, Wang makes another observation, that “there are many kinds of memories. Some are macroscopic, some are fleeting and individual.” The objects of this remark are the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, but it is not difficult to understand his own cinema, and Dead Souls in particular, in light of such an understanding. It is what Wang aims to capture, and perhaps even create, in his cinema: a particular comprehension of person, memory, and life. And Dead Souls is a complex intertwining of all that is macro and micro about such a deeply terrible tragedy. It gives account to the rarified and abstract political policies of a time, even as it captures and reifies their individual impact and fallout across ages. It is a work in which a distended run time forms a dialectic with fleeting remembering, to form terms that impress upon the viewer that even at such great lengths not enough has been said or done—and never can it be. Yet, it is this that grants Dead Souls, and Wang’s cinema more generally, its importance, for one is absorbed into a nexus of memory, history, and individuality that are unparalleled in their complexity and power. It is in this nexus that duration is used to split the viewer, so they may enter into the cinematic time of the film and undergo acutely the affects and sensations of the film’s subjects, the history they have endured, and the life they have borne. Wang Bing’s filmography is not for the faint of heart, but his work displays a rich formal philosophy and visual acumen that is unparalleled in world cinema and that demands it be undergone.

Matthew McCracken
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Matthew McCracken

Lives and works in China where he teaches English, watches movies, and fails to finish the books he starts to read. ☭
Matthew McCracken
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