Night is falling as an elderly Chinese woman sits down in her armchair, faces the camera, and begins recounting her life story. In the Fifties, He Fengming was a journalist who had turned down a promising academic career to become a revolutionary. At the height of Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, during which intellectuals were advised to contribute their opinions and let “a hundred schools of thought contend,” her husband wrote an essay criticizing the corruption of bureaucracy, which led to the couple being branded as rightists. A long period of darkness ensued, separating the family, and transporting the woman from one state of persecution to another in China’s labor camp system.
As Wang Bing’s documentary Fengming: A Chinese Memoir captures the woman’s confession over the course of three hours, night soldiers on until we can barely see her face in the shadows. The camera, a still and patient witness, never averts its gaze, even when she gets up to use the bathroom, or receive a phone call, or turn on the apartment’s harsh fluorescent lights. Shot in murky DV, this is a film that accepts the banal cycles of everyday existence, as if to save the “atrocity genre” from its own vulgar clichés. What emerges is a consummate work of art in the guise of a bare-bones oral history, as well as a remarkable piece of nonfiction that makes the whole art vs. non-art question seem beside the point.
Click here to read Andrew Chan’s review of Fengming.