Anyone drawn to the protracted runtimes of Bela Tarr (“Sátántangó,” 432 minutes) and Lav Diaz (“A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” 485) will likely be excited by the prospect of Wang Bing’s latest offering: “Dead Souls,” which clocks in at a prodigious 495 minutes. If you’ve never seen an eight-hour-plus documentary about China’s late-’50s re-education camps and the misery therein, this is surely the place to start.
Here’s the synopsis: “In Gansu Province, northwest China, lie the remains of countless prisoners abandoned in the Gobi Desert sixty years ago. Deemed ‘ultra-rightists’ in the Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, they starved to death in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui reeducation camps. Dead Souls invites us to meet the survivors of the camps to find out firsthand who these persons were, the hardships they were forced to endure, and what became their destiny.”
Bing’s most recent film, “Mrs. Fang,” won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno Film Festival and runs a mere 86 minutes. That was something of an outlier for him, as the slow-cinema stalwart specializes in extremely long films — 2003’s “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” outpaces even “Dead Souls” at 551 minutes. whereas “Three Sisters,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012, is more manageable at two-and-a-half hours. His movies aren’t often screened — subtitled documentaries that last longer than most miniseries aren’t known for their box-office appeal — but the Chinese filmmaker has enjoyed largely positive notices throughout his unique career.
“Dead Souls” opens at New York’s Anthology Film Archives tomorrow, December 14, courtesy of Grasshopper Film and Icarus Films after premiering as a special screening at Cannes earlier this year. Watch the trailer below.