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China Revealed: How New Documentaries Explore a Side of the Country Never Seen Before

In this essay from the Locarno Critics Academy, two new experimental documentaries tap into specific aspects of modern Chinese society.

mrs fang

“Mrs. Fang”

The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival.

Two Chinese independent films—Wang Bing’s Golden Leopard-winning “Mrs. Fang” and Xu Bing’s “Dragonfly Eyes”— competed for the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival (both played TIFF a few weeks later). Wang and Xu are established names whose works speak to the intersection between cinema and contemporary art. Both of their films belong to the category of experimental/conceptual documentary, and together they provide distinctive windows into contemporary Chinese society. At the same time, the differences between them couldn’t be any greater. They are formal opposites: when handling images of the real, Wang is minimalist, and abstinent, austere, while Xu is maximalist, provocative and melodramatic.

Commissioned by Documenta 14 and originally conceived as a video art piece, “Mrs. Fang” documents the last eight days of Fang Xiuying, an old woman from the countryside who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for years. Three minutes into the film, as Wang jumps forward from a period of relative well-being to her final few days, Fang loses her ability to talk or move. As she lies in bed, relatives keep her alive by dripping liquid in between her teeth; her mouth is permanently agape. Fang’s family, as well as Wang’s camera, expects her death at any moment. They discuss where they will bury her right in front of the deathbed. Her eyes roll and blink occasionally. Strikingly, the camera once captures Fang stretching one arm towards her daughter. Other than that, there is no way to know how does Fang feels while being observed, discussed, and filmed.

“Mrs. Fang” simply consists of three kinds of shots: close-ups of Fang’s face; shots of the poorly-furnished room in deep focus, with the bed in foreground, some family members in the middle ground attending to Fang, and more people in the background talking or watching TV; and then there are tracking shots of Fang’s brother-in-law going electrofishing, which is illegal in China and therefore almost always seen in the evening. These three types of shots occur in turns, placing Fang among her household, and her household within the rural environment in Zhejiang Province, in Eastern China. Compared to Xu’s film, Wang’s social commentary is much more implicit. The region where Fang resides is historically known as the “fertile land of fish and rice,” and yet on screen looks rather dilapidated. Oftentimes, recorded passively in Wang’s signature long takes, Fang’s brother-in-law’s effort on the lake is fruitless.

In most of Wang’s previous films, the space usually determines the time—the condition of places decides the films’ duration, beginnings and endings. But “Mrs. Fang,” the time determines the space. Wang knew very well before shooting that the film would end with Fang’s death, and he’s uniquely positioned to record it. It is the weight of friendship between Wang and Fang’s daughter that requires his presence at the deathbed. Wang possesses an unusual ability to stay attuned to his subject – throughout the entire film, the camera is always hand-held, never to be placed on some other stable object, even during several exceptionally-long takes of Fang’s face in close-up, in which almost nothing moves. This is Wang’s cinematic way of mourning. He shows us in extreme detail how death — this ultimate life event — is eerily uneventful.

“Dragonfly Eyes”

Though Xu Bing is not as well-known as Wang Bing in the world of cinema, he is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential contemporary artists from China, known for his print-making and installation works. “Dragonfly Eyes” is Xu’s ambitious feature debut, a fiction film made without professional actors or a cinematographer. It is built from materials extracted from over 10,000 hours of surveillance videos pulled from the internet, and then compiled into an 81-minute drama based on the screenplay co-written by poet Zhai Yongming and film director Zhang Hanyi (both of whom have collaborated with Jia Zhangke before on other projects). It tells the story of a girl named Qing Ting (dragonfly), a Buddhist nun, who leaves her temple, drifts around in the secular world, and eventually returns home to her place of worship. Violent accidents perforate the narrative; Qing Ting goes through a series of wretched turning points, each drawing reference to some most urgent social issues in today’s China, including class conflicts, sexism, identity crisis, plastic surgery, cyberbullying, transgender rights, etc. The human subject as seen in surveillance footage is always on the brink of identifiability, and any blurry image of a long-hair woman can “play” the role of the protagonist. Qing Ting is thus a synecdoche of the reality of living in China; her story is a meta narrative about contemporary China.

In recent years, China has become one of the most widely surveilled countries in the world. The story of Qing Ting is mainly told through Foley sound effects and dialogues written and performed in a theatrical manner that recalls the soap operas showed in evenings on China Central Television (also, ironically, abbreviated as CCTV). Xu Bing seems to have created a distinct genre which has the potential to unsettle the boundaries between documentary and melodrama, and to see China itself as a kind of disaster film realized through the omnipresent hyperrealism of surveillance. And yet, what Xu gets is the worst of both documentary and melodrama: fake credibility and shallow emotions. Qing Ting’s story, full of surprises and violent irruptions, illustrated with footages of human and natural disasters, is means of insisting on the contingency of a repetitive and enclosed existence (and a shrewd means to keep the audience watching).

A crucial question concerning surveillance images is left unexamined (or is regarded by the filmmakers as too simple a question): What kind of power position is offered, or created, by this mega quantum of documentation — be it the authoritarian, neo-liberal or other forces? Xu is not that interested. He indulges himself in exhibitionism rather than in a critical reflection on the voyeurism of surveillance images. In the beginning of the film, when Qing Ting’s story is yet to start, a footage is shown of an accidental fatal drowning. It is disturbing to watch how the footage’s dramatic affect is harvested for pure provocation, when a woman actually died there. Repeatedly, the power of violent images—lightening, flooding, a man being shot down in the street, car and airplane crashes—is reduced to serving a dramatic purpose, as a symbolic part of the fictional narrative about the banal travails of “Dragonfly Eyes” characters.

How do you address the death of ordinary people in everyday life? At last, for Xu Bing, death is redeemed in a religious framework, a person who cannot find a position in the society is accepted in the Buddhist temple. It is safe, and may a little easy. For Wang Bing, one must run both ethical and semiotic risks in the pursuit of great art and intimacy, of which the competition jury and the Golden Leopard itself seem to approve.

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