Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom

Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.

死靈魂 Si Ling Hun (Dead Souls, 2018) [France/Switzerland]

Wang Bing’s 铁西区 Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003) is a justly-lauded documentary about the decline and desuetude of northern China’s industry, and 15 years later the same director is back in the north of China to tackle a topic of perhaps under-appreciated history, specifically the Maoist re-education labour camps of the late-1950s. These are camps to which suspected anti-revolutionaries (so-called “rightists”) were shipped, often with scant evidence or to fulfil some arbitrary quota. Wang focuses on one of a number of such camps (Jiabiangou 夹边沟, itself formed of a number of interconnected communities), interviewing the survivors at length, both singly and with their wives, as well as going to the sites themselves to see what remains and talking to people who live in the area. It all feels particularly sub rosa given that this film was not made with the approval of Chinese authorities, who haven’t seemingly done much to make amends with this past — this much is clear in the final shot of the film — and I wonder if that may be why Wang has waited to release the film until after most of his interviewees (who were filmed between 2005 and 2016) had died.

What perhaps become clearest over the course of the interviews is just how human bodies react to extreme malnourishment, as we get description after graphic description of the starvation that was rife at this camp — it was in a particularly arid desert region of China — and how many died as a result of it. The camps were to “re-educate” a largely educated population (teachers seem to be a consistently common demographic amongst those interviewed), by forcing them to do manual labour, and in the absence of very much material proof of the camp’s existence, it’s these testimonies that are most powerful in recreating what life must have been like. It’s affecting of course, but also cumulatively powerful in documenting an almost-disappeared and unheard generation of elderly Chinese people, and the difficulties they faced.

Dead Souls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wang Bing 王兵; Cinematographers Wang, Shan Xiaohui 单晓慧 and Song Yang; Length 495 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Sunday 2 December 2018.

An elderly Chinese man with his wife

Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018) [China/France]

The bulk of this film has a single camera angle, and it’s pointed at the seated figure of artist Gao Ertai as he tells his story. There’s a commitment to hearing his testimony that’s somewhat reminiscent of Claude Lanzmann I suppose. Gao’s story loops back on itself several times, and it begins to a certain extent with his imprisonment in Jiabiangou (the subject of Dead Souls, to which this film will inevitably be seen somewhat as a footnote). Beyond that, his experiences are those of many intellectuals in China in the 20th century (and which echo his stories about his own father), of being targeted and harassed, eventually taking him out of the country. He explains (with a great amount of detail about names and places) of what he did, but also some of his theory, both within his art and in life, and the kind of things he taught as a professor at a Chinese university before leaving. This film is an exercise in listening, with great patience.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Wang Bing 王兵; Starring Gao Ertai 高尔泰; Length 300 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 14 April 2019.


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