By Daniel Kasman & Christopher Small
Published in Cinema Scope 72 (Fall 2017)
An old face—skin drawn tautly over jaw and cheekbone, thinning grey hair, eyeballs quivering like tadpoles—is the central image in Wang Bing’s Golden Leopard winner Mrs. Fang. The naked, sober image of this face, which belongs to Fang Xiuying, the film’s bedridden 68-year-old protagonist, is studied at length and in close-up; the camera’s prominence imbues Fang’s pallid features with a kind of unclouded solemnity. The abstract concepts of death and illness are summoned to reality here, glimpsed in the twitch of an eyelid or in the grimace on Fang’s petrified lips.
Before the full subject of the film—the bare intimacy of approaching the death of another human—is revealed, we see the grandmother in a few brief glimpses around her home in her village of Maihui, in China’s Zhejiang province. Wang shoots her standing in a floral coat, as if for a portrait, in her home and outside, by one of the multitude of waterways that pass through her village. She seems reserved but in good health, yet after a single fade to black, one year has passed and the old woman has been confined to her bed by advanced Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in partial paralysis. Wang, whose perennial theme is the mystery of human surfaces and their relationship to the cruel whims of the world, pushes these shots of the dying woman’s face beyond any traditional length. Through extended sequence shots we peer at this ossified, inexpressive mask wondering what pain or numbness dwells beneath, with only her swivelling eyes hinting at interiority. The emphasis is so great and the intimacy so cutting that this face becomes an overriding metaphor for the situation Mrs. Fang as a whole depicts in all its obscurity and complexity.
Taking place almost entirely over the course of the last seven days of Fang Xiuying’s life, Mrs. Fang is as sober a depiction of the variously moving and bizarre rituals of observance and comment that spring up around the death of a person as Frederick Wiseman’s epic Near Death (1989). While Wiseman’s masterpiece is the closest precedent in documentary cinema to Mrs. Fang, it is ultimately more about the intellectual, emotional struggle of doctors and nurses to comfort the anguished friends and relatives of people on the verge of death. No doctors are seen in Wang’s film, no expert treats the woman; in fact, there are no officials of any kind in the film. Death thereby becomes solely a personal matter: Fang is not a patient but a victim.
In one-fifth the length of Wiseman’s film, Mrs. Fang runs the gamut of the reactions of grieving neighbours and relatives; it is a kind of materialist theatre of mourning, alternating between studying Mrs. Fang directly as she stiffly shifts around in bed with the help of her family and then stepping back to observe the behaviour of those who come to pay their respects or to experience the spectacle of a paralyzed woman firsthand. When not peering at the woman in close-up, the camera is often showing the bedside from one side or the other at a distance, rendering it and its observers as a fresco, death’s audience variously crying, tending, distracted, leering, complaining, and impassive. In one scene, the visitors point down at Mrs. Fang lying in bed and talk about her as if she were already dead, pondering about the vagaries of her supposedly deteriorating mental state out loud. In the next, they stand silently in a semicircle around her bed, locked in unshakeable grief for the dying matriarch. Wang, as ever, can only hint at the interior lives of his subjects by studying their surfaces: Mrs. Fang’s face, first and foremost of course, but also the obscured faces of those who come to visit her.
This community is alluded to in scenes that take a step outside the room where Mrs. Fang convalesces. Only the spare edges of Maihui are sketched in the film, as the town’s buildings are espied on each end of Mrs. Fang’s ground-floor flat, which runs the length of the building, entrances (or exits) on each side. The spatial arrangement of the flat and the realization that it is, in effect, a passageway, is in the scope of this modest and constrained film a quiet revelation, a combination of the sudden connecting of several already-seen spaces into a continuous geography and the bare allegorical connotations of the dying woman lying between two gateways to another world.
The outside world is shown in a surprisingly limited way by Wang, who restricts his camera to following several men—Mrs. Fang’s relatives and neighbours—on nocturnal fishing excursions to murky waters surrounding the village. This group of men (the women are almost exclusively shown at Mrs. Fang’s bedside), whom we watch in several lengthy sequences, rely on flashlights and an electrified metal net to try and catch fish. The observation and work is curious in and of itself—it’s unclear if this activity is a necessity or recreation—but more curious still is that these scenes are the film’s only departure from Mrs. Fang’s deathbed, turning them into the strongest counterpoint to our intimate confrontation with a fading life. The forlorn loneliness of the fishing and its meagre effectiveness cast these moments of respite away from the claustrophobic house in poetic relief: a kind of soul searching, both in the needs of life (searching for food) and the needs of play (the activity has the aspect of a game). We can’t help but feel that the men’s search in the town’s watery outskirts is a search in some way to relieve Mrs. Fang: not to help her recover, but to help her pass without greater suffering. They step away, perhaps to escape the pervasive atmosphere of impending death, to fish for the family, but something in their search, shown in all its patient simplicity, achieves the metaphysical. Their activity is everyday; it will even—of course—resume after Mrs. Fang dies. Is it too much of a stretch to compare these fishermen with Wang Bing, their electric rods to his camera, and their search for life something he, too, quests after every day?
We caught up with Wang Bing in Locarno, two days before Mrs. Fang won the Golden Leopard.
Cinema Scope: How did you meet Mrs. Fang?
Wang Bing: In 2015, by chance, I ran into her daughter, who later invited me to go and meet her. She wanted me to visit their home, spend some time together, and visit the village where they lived. At the time when I first met her, Mrs. Fang was in very good health, and somehow I had the idea then—talking things over with her daughter—to make a documentary about her. Just to start with some shooting. But at that point it was more or less just an idea. But then—this was about early 2016—I didn’t find the time to do that. Time passed and I didn’t make the documentary I planned. Some time later, I received a phone call from the daughter to inform me that Mrs. Fang was sick. Again, it was by chance that I was in a small city nearby, and I decided to rush and visit them again. But when I arrived I found that Mrs. Fang was really very sick. Still, even at that time I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make a documentary about her and her illness. I decided anyway to shoot something. I didn’t have a clear idea of what it was that I was going to do with the footage because you never know—maybe sometimes there is a story there, other times there isn’t. Anyway, I was there shooting until the very end. I thought that whatever I was going to do with this footage, I would decide afterwards.
Scope: How large was your crew when you started shooting?
Wang: We were three people. I was there, together with the other two DPs.
Scope: From the very start, the film is amazingly intimate. I was wondering how long it took to build that trust with the family.
Wang: I actually knew the family for a long time. And it was they who called me to go there. Since we already knew each other, that allowed me to be there with them in that way. I know that the more time that passed and the sicker that Mrs. Fang got, the more under pressure the family were. Everybody was very nervous, since we all knew she was going to die. But they accepted that I was there. In no way did they interrupt or bother me while I was shooting.
Scope: Just to follow up on what you said, it sounds like there are two aspects to that: one is that being close enough to the family, it’s okay for you, who is not a family member, to be there watching somebody who is that sick. But it’s another thing to be allowed to film that sickness. So I’m wondering what the family’s evolving relationship with the act of filming the sickness was.
Wang: In these circumstances, there is obviously a lot of pressure. But again, I was invited there by the family. The attitude was that it was good for me to be there. I stayed there seven days, until the very end—that is, Mrs. Fang’s death. But around the fifth day, I felt that something was different. The pressure also came from the neighbourhood. Neighbours were going to visit Mrs. Fang all the time, and my filming there was making things uncomfortable. So I decided that for the fifth day there would be no filming. I started again the next day. I spent time talking to the family, and I knew that the son and daughter of Mrs. Fang accepted me being there. They wanted me to film this. But the neighbours were another story; they didn’t feel comfortable.
Scope: Can you speak a little about the scenes with the fisherman using electrified fishing poles in the ponds and rivers nearby? I feel like they act as a counterpoint to the scenes concentrating on Mrs. Fang and make the film closer to a narrative feature, rather than simply a documentary.
Wang: All these scenes were shot at the same time as the main scenes in Mrs. Fang’s home. On the second day, Mrs. Fang’s brother said, suddenly, “Come fishing with us!” But yes, we were filming these at the same time as filming all the scenes with Mrs. Fang sick in her home. I accepted, thinking that it would be good to follow them. I did all the shooting at night—if you remember they were all night scenes—and then I came back to the house. Then it started to make sense. I realized that I needed to describe the village in which she was living because she lived there for so many years. I wanted to give a sense of the environment she was living in. Fishing was the main activity of the village, so that was important. And all the people she was living with for all those years—all of this was part of her life. I don’t mean that she was going fishing with the men every night, but of course she was surrounded by these kinds of activities. It is part of life in that village.
Scope: I was curious about how you approach filming a sick subject, how you ensure that that person maintains their dignity, and that there’s never a sense of exploiting a real person’s pain to create an image of pain.
Wang: I am a filmmaker. I make films. And I keep asking myself about cinema all the time and what it is about. What we are supposed to watch, what are we supposed to see in cinema? When I was there I was thinking a lot about the subject. Cinema needs these kinds of stories. Each of us has to face death sooner or later; cinema might find its own way to describe death, to tell stories of death.
Scope: Do you feel like it would only be okay to film a subject in this way if you personally knew the person, or would it be okay to do the same for anybody?
Wang: Well, I can film unknown people too. For this subject? Yes, it would be okay. I would do it. I have seen so many films from so many countries about this subject: death. But most of them are fiction films so they use actors. In my work—and this is what I like to do—I don’t use actors. I meet people, and I tell the stories of these real people in their own reality. This is what I do. The subject interests me inasmuch as it is a subject that interests me in cinema.
Scope: I was wondering what your specific interest in Mrs. Fang’s face was? Such a huge part of the film is spent looking directly at her face, as she lies paralyzed. Her eyes, teeth, gums, ears, skin, cheekbones—I just wanted to know what it was specifically about the face that was such a source of interest for you.
Wang: It was the very first day that I was shooting. She was already very sick; she was lying in bed. On that day, I shot for two hours and then I left. Then I spent the rest of that day watching this footage. Already I had been shooting very close up. And while going back and watching the footage again and again and again, I was obviously thinking about how generally I was going to shoot her—how I’ll do it and what exactly I’m going to show the audience what it is about Mrs. Fang that interests me. I saw that watching those close-ups from the first day that her eyes were very impressive, very touching. Behind her eyes I saw something—a light. And that light reminded me of a child’s eyes. I thought, “She’s there and we know that she’s there looking out from behind her eyes.” Eyes talk to us in these ways. When it dawned on me that a second chance to record her was unlikely, I realized that for the most part this would be the way to have her appear in the film. I thought it would probably be the only way to make people feel that she’s there, she’s alive, she’s still alive.
If you remember, at the end of the film I also shot similar kinds of close-ups. When I was making those shots, I had a feeling that we were probably close to the end. She was going to die soon. I stayed there, looking for something. But in the very, very end, I decided not to be there, to step out. I felt that in taking those close-ups we were only a few hours away from her dying. After that last scene, I stepped back and saw the entire scene around her—I actually decided to stop filming when I saw her tears rolling down her cheek. All the other relatives and neighbours strongly believed that she had no thoughts anymore, that she could no longer think about living anymore. I was wondering what she was thinking at that time. And when I saw those tears coming down her cheeks I thought that maybe she was still there. Maybe she wasn’t able to communicate, but there was a tear. That was enough for me to understand that there was still someone there and that she wanted me there. The whole process then was in trying to understand—and find a way of expressing in cinema—what were this woman’s last thoughts.