On Tuesday, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (November 8 through 19) announced that its Wang Bing retrospective will be accompanied by a series programmed by the director himself. Selecting ten films made in China from 1999 to 2011, Wang “invites us on a contemplative journey into contemporary Chinese cinema.” In 2018, James Quandt noted in the New York Review of Books that writing on Wang’s documentaries “teems with terms of immensity. He is said to make ‘monster films,’ ‘films fleuves,’ and films of ‘leviathan extremes’—phrases that attempt to measure the enormity, in both ambition and running time, of the director’s many epic investigations into his country’s traumatic past and precarious present.”
The occasion for Quandt’s piece was the release that year of the last two films Wang completed before the pandemic put a stop to his work on a film about Nigerian migrant workers in China. In Dead Souls, survivors of the Maoist reeducation camps of the 1950s deliver their testimonies over the course of more than eight hours, and Beauty Lives in Freedom, running five and a half hours, is a portrait of another camp survivor, artist and philosopher Gao Ertai. In May, Wang finally returned with Youth (Spring), his first film to premiere in competition in Cannes, and Man in Black, an hour-long film many have suggested plays less like a documentary than a work of performance art. Both films are now set to screen at the New York Film Festival (September 29 through October 15).
“If Wang’s momentous debut, the three-part, nine-hour West of the Tracks (Tie Xi Qu) (2002), chronicled the decline of an industrial district of state-owned factories,” writes NYFF artistic director Dennis Lim at the top of his interview with the director for Film Comment, “the three-and-a-half-hour Youth (Spring) is squarely situated within a private-enterprise China, where new economic structures have engendered new forms of exploitation.” Three hundred thousand migrant workers from all across China assemble children’s clothing for around 18,000 small businesses clustered in Zhili, a manufacturing district in the city of Huzhou, located about ninety miles west of Shanghai.
In Bitter Money (2016), Wang focused on several of these workers’ odysseys, “beginning in their home villages, following their journeys by bus and train to Huzhou, and then peering into the factories,” writes James Wham for the New Left Review.Bitter Money “represented a kind of arrival or establishing shot. Youth, with its intense focus on life inside them, is more like a close-up.” Dispatching to Filmmaker from Cannes, Blake Williams found Youth “characteristically grueling, immersing viewers in the dehumanizing hell of Chinese capitalism. Factory corridors are dank and endless, their work cells harshly lit, cluttered and claustrophobic. Long passages are devoted to subjects discussing and negotiating subtle inconsistencies in their wages, or ways to work in overtime hours so they can earn the extra 500 yuan (~$75) to get by.”
Most of these workers are in their early twenties, though as the Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin points out, some are in their late teens, and they’re “terrible negotiators when pitted against the local bosses watching their margins with a hawkish eye.” But as Michael Sicinski notes in Cinema Scope, there’s also “a lot of flirting, horseplay, grab-ass, and attitudinizing, all fairly universal behaviors for the age group, and one can see that they are experiencing a young-adult freedom in what for many is their first extended period away from home. But of course, these playful antics are punctuated by the constant roar of sewing machines and the frantic pace of their labour. Wang doesn’t ignore the fact that these workers are being exploited. But he makes it clear that their lives are complex, and cannot be reduced to that exploitation.” Youth is “a portrait of a grind, yes,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Sight and Sound, “but also a testament to the irrepressible, earthy energy of the latest generation pressed into industrial service.”
One of the more skeptical reviews of Youth comes from Sam C. Mac. “The monumental achievement of West of the Tracks galvanized the field of Chinese independent documentary in the early 2000s to such a degree that a new generation of filmmakers seemed to form almost instantly and take specific cues from Wang’s DIY ethos,” writes Mac at Slant. “But Wang hasn’t stayed the trail-blazing course, as his subsequent films haven’t been as radical in form nor quite as immediately provocative in their politics.” Mac argues that “the most significant project to come out of Wang’s career in the more than two decades since his debut has been a commitment to oral histories.”
Modernist composer Wang Xilin spent the years between 1964 and 1978 at labor camps and mental asylums, and in Man in Black, he appears at eighty-six alone and naked in the Théâtre des Bouffes-du-Nord in Paris. He performs an abstract dance as his music thunders, crashes, and recedes. In Screen,Jonathan Romney notes that when he sits to speak, he “recounts his experience of Chinese communism, from his early days as an enthusiastic party member—joining the People’s Liberation Army in 1949—to his hard-won awareness that the ideology had become, as he puts it, ‘a cruel, merciless betrayal.’ Wang’s belief that musical technique was vital to artistry, and not to be subjugated to political purpose, led to his denunciation and marginalization. Once the Cultural Revolution got under way, by which point Wang had already suffered a nervous breakdown, his troubles intensified.”
“Short where Youth is long; elegiac where Youth is observational; a burnished, pared-back sculpture where Youth is a work of surfeit and assembly, Man in Black can most easily, if inadequately, be described as a biographical document,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety. “This brief but profoundly moving film represents such a consummate collaboration between director, cinematographer [Caroline Champetier], editor [Claire Atherton], and subject that its authorship could be recorded as a four-way tie.”
Writing for In Review Online, Matt McCracken proposes that all of Wang’s works “are rooted in, as French film scholar Georges Didi-Huberman puts it, ‘observing, studying, respecting, and finally admiring [people] exercising their intelligence and their experience in the fight for existence with very little help.’”
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