Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chinese Cinema

The only requirement for a spotlight on recent Chinese cinema was that the selections should be mostly documentaries. With that in mind, I put down Wang Bing immediately as I had wanted to see his works for almost 2 years now. I slowly opened the gates to allow 2 non documentaries to flow through but one of these films, Oxhide, blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The only true narrative film Sun Spots has minimal dialogue and plenty of long takes so it felt right at home with the other films which offered plenty of contemplative moments.

Film List

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003, Wang Bing)
Oxhide (2005, Jiayin Liu)
He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007, Wang Bing)
Crime and Punishment (2007, Zhao Liang)
Sun Spots (2009, Heng Yang)

Wang Bing

I was first alerted to Wang Bing's potential via a magnificent article by Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope. Koehler asks of Wang Bing's first film West of the Tracks: "is there a more sublime debut in recent history?"

I cannot answer that question as I still have many recent debut features to go through but I can assert that his 2003 film is indeed a "sublime debut". The film, divided in three parts, is shot in North Eastern China and requires an investment of 9 hours from its viewers but it rewards those patient viewers with plenty of riches. I like to label his film as a pure documentary where the camera patiently records everything in sight and allows viewers to listen in to all the daily noises while leaving plenty of room for them to draw their own conclusions.

The first part (Rust) is almost 4 hours long and is the pick of the bunch. The camera moves freely and shows the workers in their everyday factory surrounding and captures them as they go about their daily tasks or takes a peak into the workers break area and locker room. As a result, the film allows us to get to know each person a bit better thereby adding depth to each person's personality. We understand their views a bit better and are not surprized to see them behave the way they do. Also, Wang Bing smartly places his camera either at table height or at eye level, thereby giving the impression that the viewer is either seated at the worker’s table or is standing in one corner of the room looking at the different people walking in and out.

Part II: Remnants moves the camera away from the factories into the worker's residential quarters. Since the factories are in the process of going bankrupt and shutting down, the workers will have to be relocated as their factory provided houses will be torn down. Watching a neighbourhood in the process of destruction feels similar to Costa's In Vanda's Room which captured the demolition of the Fontainhas slums. The one difference between In Vanda’s Room and West of the Tracks is that while Costa confined himself mostly to just one room, Wang Bing wanders through multiple alleys and homes giving us a more complete picture and impact of the destruction. We also get to see the laid off worker's kids and observe how their lives will be altered by the factory shutdowns. Part III: Rail perfectly ties the film together with its comparatively brief 2 hour running time. We get to board the railcars and are introduced to the workers that drive the trains to and from the factories. This final segment allows us to piece together all the lives that are dependent on the factories existence giving us a full sense of impact the plant shutdowns will have on the nearby surroundings.

A truly impressive debut film that works hard to give a complete picture of the factories and workers that once kept an economy moving!!

Wang Bing completely switches gears with Fengming. The film’s opening shot follows He Fengming up to her apartment through a snowy pathway. The initial sequence feels like a shot straight out of West of the Tracks. However, once the camera enters the apartment, it stays stationary for almost the next 3 hours and does not leave the apartment. There are almost no close-ups for at least the first hour of the film and the camera only slightly moves back and forth a few times during the film's duration. The stationary camera might have been a handicap but He Fengming's story is so powerful and engaging that one soon forgets the boundary between the screen and He Fengming. The viewer is like a guest seated in her apartment listening to her tragic story in complete detail. This guest perspective is emphasized by two examples -- bathroom break and the sunset. When He Fengming has to take a bathroom break, the camera stays stationary giving the impression that the seated viewer is indeed patiently waiting for her to return. During the first hour, the sun slowly sets and darkness gradually starts to make its way into the apartment, only for He Fengming to get up and turn on the light before proceeding with the story. These two examples appear to take place in real time and only add to the illusion that the viewer is listening to the story in one continuous evening.

The Spotlight almost turned into a one man show with 12+ hours of film by Wang Bing and a further two films (Coal Mine and the short film Brutality Factory) up for inclusion but I decided to put off a separate spotlight on the director until I viewed his first fictional film The Ditch which premiered at Venice and TIFF and is currently playing in Montreal. Ofcourse, I would like to see his 14 hour documentary A Journey of Crude Oil but a DVD release is surely out of question, or is it? Over to IFFR to see if their Tiger Release DVD label will oblige.

Still staying in North Eastern China..snow and law

Police enforce laws. Citizens break laws.

Sounds simple enough. But what if the laws aren't fair? What if the laws impede people's everyday lives? These are some of the questions that pop up in Crime and Punishment as Zhao Liang's camera observes the everyday routines of the border police as they try to enforce laws, arrest and question thieves/criminals/law violators. Sometimes the criminals do not cooperate and that leads to usage of force by the officers. On two occasions, the camera was asked to be turned off after a beating started and the audience can easily guess what happened next. The camera spends enough time observing each arrested individual and that method allows one to question if the arrested person is guilty or innocent. In one case, we get an example of a person, Old man Wang, who clearly knows that he has violated the law but is trying his level best to find any wiggle room that he can.

The movie has shades of the fascinating documentary Checkpoint which showed that sometimes the job of enforcing laws isn't that clear cut. Checkpoint showed that if there are laws which disrupt people's lives and make it difficult for individuals to move about, then surely there will be situations where people will either break the law or not respect the law altogether. Crime and Punishment picks up on this idea and shows that if the law is not going to be respected, then there will be cases where police officers enforcing the law will be abused. Abusing police seems to be the first and most accessible step in defying the law. Yet, those abusing the police can end up making lives difficult for themselves especially if the police officers retaliate thereby leading the troubled citizens down a horrible cycle of crime and punishment.

At the end of the credits in Crime and Punishment one of the people thanked is Wang Bing. It wouldn't be surprizing if two directors exchanged notes as both of them shot their first films in the North Eastern part of China.

Restricting space vs opening up space / darkness vs bright light


Jiayin Liu's remarkable tactic of shooting in a darkened confined space perfectly illustrates the living conditions in her parent’s apartment. The restricted camera angles depict the tiny size of the apartment while the lack of lighting indicate that her parents don’t have enough money for electricity or that they don’t get running power for long durations. It is a fascinating experiment to illustrate lack of physical space by squeezing out space in front of the camera thereby invoking a disorienting claustrophobic effect in the viewer.

After a while, the family’s situation is apparent and we learn enough about the dynamics in the household. Oxhide shares a cinematic space with Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room. In both cases, the directors form a solo crew and carefully control their environment and only feed us information in pieces (be it is visual or audio) as per their choices. However, Costa was restricted in his choices because he only had a few hours to shoot in the slum every day. Whereas, Jiayin Liu was not as restricted yet chose to be. Also, Costa had no choice but to shoot in a darkened and restricted space but he was able to get some light for his shots by using broken mirrors and other objects as reflectors because he wanted his character’s faces to be visible. On the other hand, Jiayin Liu wants us to get a sense of her parents living situation and does not want much light to filter in the frame.

Oxhide gives out bits of information to the viewer in tiny increments and that makes for a satisfying conclusion when all the pieces are put together after carefully listening in to all conversations.

Sun Spots

In a complete contrast to Oxhide, Heng Yang opens up space in front of the camera in his second feature Sun Spots. His camera stays still and absorbs everything in front of the brightly lit settings. Slowly, objects and humans enter the frame and gradually leave but the camera stays still. There are no pans and no cuts during each fixed shot.

In Sun Spots, the breathtaking background of mountains/rivers provides a peaceful, calm setting while the characters saunter into the frame. The gangster and love triangle story is also a fascinating experiment about how a lot can be conveyed with as little as possible. The dialogues are sparse yet the character's body language depicts enough of their behavior to follow the chain of events. Finally, the decision to shoot in HD gives the film a beautiful richer than life quality.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was an immensely enjoyable spotlight with all 5 works falling neatly into the contemplative cinema category. Each work requires an investment from the viewer and also leaves plenty of fodder for the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

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