Interviews | Ghost Stories: Wang Bing’s Startling New Cinema

By Robert Koehler

As the winter night begins to swallow up what little light remains in the sky, an old woman trudges up a pathway toward a block of flats. The camera follows her at a respectful distance, acknowledging her importance but never wanting to be so close that it encroaches in on her space. Soon, the woman is in her flat, settling into her favourite living-room chair, with her guest—the camera—watching her from across her coffee table. She begins to speak…

After this deceptive opening movement, Wang Bing’s second film, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, proceeds to unfold as a cinematic oral history that tells of the full horrors of the worst of Maoist China. He Fengming, former university student and fulltime journalist, relates her personal account of the 1948 revolution’s powerful tide, and how heady excitement gave way to spasms of recriminations and paranoia that led to mass denunciations, show trails, persecutions, and deportations to labour camps where politics was irrelevant: “Survival,” in her words, “was all that mattered.”

Partly because of the large gestural movements of his camera in his monumental Tiexi District: West of the Tracks (2003)—is there a more sublime debut in recent history?—and partly because he steadfastly refuses to allow his attention to wander anywhere else in the flat except directly upon Fengming while she speaks for over 170 of the 184-minute film, Wang delivers a shock to anyone who assumed they had a bead on his art after just one film. Given that West of the Tracks, all nine-hours-plus, was so all-encompassing in its recording of the eradication of the Tie Xi Qu industrial sector of Shenyang in northeast China, and seemed such a definitive statement as documentary art in extremis and on the physical reality of China’s economic reforms, it seemed to define Wang’s cinema.

The intensely ascetic form of Fengming demands disciplined viewing and listening, which seemed in sync with its single, unassuming Cannes appearance. By the time Denys Arcand had ignominiously fled the Palais on closing night, there could be no denying that Wang had not only made one of the few Cannes films that mattered, but that this, combined with his stunning short, Brutality Factory (as part of the Gulbenkian Foundation-supported The State of the World), made Wang the best-of-show director at Cannes.

Rather than appearing as detached and independent projects made under two entirely distinct sets of circumstances (which is what they are), Fengming and Brutality Factory tell the same fundamental saga from differing vantage points. Fengming’s story, which she wrote in the early ‘90s as a published memoir titled My Life in 1957, is told from the standpoint of an intellectual who had fully embraced the revolutionary ideal, but whose husband, fellow journalist Wang Jing-chao, perhaps took the fervour of Mao’s pitch to reform the country’s stifling bureaucracy too much to heart. Wang’s three essays, published in the Gansu Daily where the couple worked, rubbed certain cadres the wrong way and earned him the label of a “rightist.” In one of several waves of actual and pseudo-reform that reached a fever pitch with the Cultural Revolution, the anti-rightist movement eventually persecuted and imprisoned nearly 553,000 Chinese—including Fengming, who was put on a humiliating show trial and sent to a brutal labour camp merely for being Wang’s wife.

Fengming describes her suicidal urges (she even swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills, but to no effect) as well as her dogged efforts to stay alive in the camps. The attempts to collect or steal small batches of raw cottonseed and flour to fill her empty stomach become the stuff of extraordinary suspense, just as a chilling passage as she’s trying to stay alive in a cave and thinking of the spirits of those who hadn’t survived in the camps suggests that what’s actually playing out in Fengming is something of a ghost story.

The same awareness of spectres hovers over Brutality Factory, which begins with vistas of massive hulks of old factories quite similar to those in West of the Tracks, and then peers inside one of the forbidding complexes to reveal a so-called “struggle session”: Revolutionary guards torturing a woman to give up information on her husband. Because he’s imagining a story he had been told—much in the way that Fengming sits across from him in her living room and talks—Wang departs from his stance as a non-fiction filmmaker and stages the grisly, deeply inhuman incident. It conjures up the dead—both those inducing death and those victimized—while hinting at the sort of dramas that may be in Wang’s future.

Coincidentally, Wang had originally wanted to capture the essence of Chinese intellectuals in a dramatic feature, but instead found his ideal form of expression in Fengming, whose account—which easily ranks in power alongside those of other survivors of the worst terrors of the 20th century like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi—speaks for the living and dead of a period of China that may gradually recede with time, but continues to haunt the mind.

CINEMA SCOPE: What compelled you to contact He Fengming and how did you meet her?

WANG BING: Being that I’m a member of the younger generation and may not be aware of the thoughts and feelings of older people, I wanted to try to find the best way of addressing a number of issues that concerned me. At the same time, I wanted to tackle some issues as well as solve a few questions I had about what path I wanted to take for my next creative project. Basically, when I made West of the Tracks, I followed my instincts and didn’t set out an approach to the technical side of the filmmaking ahead of time. I hadn’t looked for any rational filmmaking strategy. When I finished West of the Tracks, I felt as if one period of my life was over and a new period was starting, and I started thinking about how I could take a more structured approach for what I wanted to work on next, which was the life of the older generation. So I wanted, in a very conscientious and targeted way, to contact intellectuals of this generation. This was during 2004 to 2006, when I did my research.

SCOPE: When you say that filming West of the Tracks was more intuitive, and that you wanted to change direction, does that mean that you wanted to have a clear and direct approach with the intellectuals you decided to film? Or did you arrive at this manner in which you filmed Fengming during the time that you got to know her?

WANG: Before I started filming Fengming, I spent a good deal of time getting to know her, so we became pretty close. I’d often pay her visits, take her to dinner, talk about her life and about others who she knew. At first, I had no specific plan to make this particular film. Then an opportunity presented itself when the Kunsten Art Festival in Brussels contacted me and asked me to contribute. I couldn’t think of what I could really do, and then the idea gradually started forming that I could make a film with He Fengming. At first in October 2005 I planned a 50-minute film of her talking. The actual filming started in January 2006. After I finished filming, I realized that I couldn’t squeeze it into 50 minutes. In the end, I expanded it two hours and ten minutes. After we showed it in Kunsten in May 2006, I found that the narrative wasn’t quite complete, so I went back to Beijing to round out the story, which meant filming an additional hour. We finally finished this phase by September 2006.

SCOPE: It’s interesting that the conversation took place during two periods, because the impression when watching the film is that it’s one continuous session of her talking, almost non-stop, with the sun setting, the lights in her living room turn on, and then it’s on into the next day. It’s as if she never stops. Did you want to create this impression? And where is the placement of the two-hours-plus section, and the subsequently filmed hour-long section?

WANG: Obviously, I thought a lot about how to portray the narrative process. I observed her and visited her a lot during this process. At the same time, I was asking myself how I could show her as she lives today, alone in that house, and conveying this atmosphere on screen. I thought about various approaches before I adopted the technique I chose. In fact, the whole process stretches not just over one day, but three. The first shot following her into her apartment takes place during the evening of the first day.

SCOPE: That’s what I call the West of the Tracks shot.

WANG: Yes, I can see that! Then most of the story is told over the expanse of the second day, from the morning into the evening. Her story goes right on through to 1978 and the end of the Cultural Revolution when she’s rehabilitated. The third day is when she talks about 1991, when she looks to find her husband’s grave, and then ends in the evening.

SCOPE: When she talks on the phone to another survivor.

WANG: Yes. So there are basically three sections. Her story from 1949 to 1978 is a complete self-contained segment without break. The second segment is in 1991. There’s also a break in history, so we decided to break it up this way, and film it the next day. And then the final segment is when she’s walking through her flat and takes the phone call. I wanted to include this little piece to show her life now, and use more traditionally cinematic means to convey that.

SCOPE: Did that phone call just happen in the moment, and is it typical that she gets phone calls from survivors?

WANG: The call just happened to come in when I was there. In fact, He Fengming has had a lot of contact with people who had the same experiences. It wasn’t contrived at all. She’s mentioning actual names, phone numbers, and addresses. Of course, I excised the phone numbers and addresses from the soundtrack! The call is quite accurate, and does reflect the kind of contact she has with the outside world. It kind of wakes you up—you realize that this is her real life. The ring itself hits our ears like a bolt out of the blue. We’re deep inside the waves of history and stories of life and death, and then this happens.

SCOPE: A surprising effect of watching Fengming through your fixed, distant camera is the eerie, unsettling mood that gradually settles over everything. Did you find that this came purely out of the circumstances of being with her in that space?

WANG: The choice of cinematic technique was in order to produce a direct feeling of her actual existence in this flat. She’s an old lady, with slow movements and with a body that’s physically twisted, even deformed. There are certain effects that give this impression. For example, her home looks very small and dark. Effectively, it suggests a lonely life, and she’s very happy to have someone visiting her. I wanted to capture her life now right alongside her thoughts of her past; in that sense, she’s actually living in the past to a real degree. I got the feeling that her home is like a tomb, buried in the ground. That comes from the lack of light; what little of it comes from different levels. Her living in this tomb space is a bit like a ghost sitting down or moving about. With her movements and the changes in light, I was trying to give this impression and atmosphere.

SCOPE: Because the shots are so long, the eye begins to wander about the frame and the space inside the frame, and lands upon objects in clear sight. There’s a bag with a few oranges on a sofa, stuff like that, and the perspective is as if the viewer is her guest seated in a chair across her coffee table. It seems amazingly useful to capture these everyday objects in the frame, while noting that they’re there purely by happenstance. Were these details kind of wonderful to see, like a still life?

WANG: Well, I’m concerned that I don’t impose a message, as I don’t want to visually force anything on viewers. In other words, I want to make it as loose and open as possible, and to create the circumstances to maximize the possibilities of the audience directly experiencing and following her story, and eliminating any possible obstacles, especially those that could be created by the filming itself. That was my main concern. I wanted to use fairly wide angles, to have the field open to let the audience freely roam and observe details at their own leisure. So they feel at home and get closer to her. There should be nothing standing in the way, least of all the director as a screen between the subject and the audience.

SCOPE: You’ve said that as a member of the younger generation, you wanted to learn about the stories of the older generation, your parents’ generation that lived through the era of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the aftermath. You also note that this experience and history has been lost on the new generation. This seems a central reason for making the film. Is the younger generation forgetting their history?

WANG: The education that my generation received didn’t reflect reality. Suddenly, as we entered our 30s—I’m turning 40 in November—we began to realize this discrepancy between what we’ve been taught and the truth. We’re realizing we’ve been living in unreality, that the world we’ve been living in hasn’t been true. The history taught in the classroom was so disconnected from actual history. So this was one motivation. The other was that today in China people are generally reluctant to look back. If you don’t look back on your history, it seems to me that you can’t observe clearly which way you should be headed in the future. People only think forward, what they want tomorrow. Yesterday is irrelevant and today’s quickly going to become irrelevant. If this kind of thinking persists, it’s very troublesome. That kind of life seems suspended in empty space, detached in a kind of illusion, without any grounding. This creates an uneasy feeling, a psychological discomfort in me that’s hard to describe.

SCOPE: Is this concern for reality behind the basis for your making non-fiction cinema? You have yet to make narrative films—although there are interesting hints of this is in Brutality Factory.

WANG: I haven’t made fiction films because the conditions haven’t been right for me. The second reason is that in China, social changes have come so fast and been so massive, that the opportunities for documentaries are considerable. In documentary, you have to operate extremely quickly and record what’s immediately in front of you. Comparatively, making a feature is a slow, sluggish process. Before taking the step to make dramatic features, I think it’s better to look closely at reality, and in order to do this, I have to take a close look at myself, and how I’m experiencing reality. I’m hoping by going through this period of filmmaking, my takes on reality will be all the more powerful when I decide to make dramatic features.

SCOPE: It does seem, as well, that He Fengming’s story and how she relates it to you and the audience is a political act and a brave one. Even though her memoirs have been published, there seems to be something even more political about her story being put on film. Were you thinking about how this film is for the record and will ideally be shown worldwide.

WANG: As a filmmaker, I didn’t think I was making a political gesture. My main concern was to show how this woman has lived her life and lived through all these calamities, and how she’s living today. As far as the political impact is concerned, it’s outside my scope. If it does have a political impact, whatever that may be, it’s because of the political situation itself. It would be totally due to the politics at the time, and not because of my work as a director and Fengming telling her story.

SCOPE: What I was thinking is that her story is now being heard around the world, and will have a more international audience. I’m also thinking of the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

WANG: I honestly can’t consider that. It depends entirely on who sees it and how they experience it, view it, and then discuss it. It then takes on a life of its own.

SCOPE: While watching the film, I pictured you sitting or standing beside the camera, and how you were feeling about listening to Fengming talking, and what your emotions might have been as she tells this story where tragedy is piled upon tragedy. It’s almost too painful to listen to. This is something that’s exceptionally rare for the viewer to consider: What is the director thinking right now? It’s a remarkable kind of space that the film allows for.

WANG: It’s so hard to answer that, I’m actually a little embarrassed. My feelings were very complex. First, I had a feeling of real unease and malaise hearing her story. And second, I felt a mounting determination to get this film made and show it to as many people as possible. The third strand is a feeling of thinking about one’s own life in (Chinese) society. What makes this more complex for me is that these three sets of feelings are intertwined, and difficult to separate.

SCOPE: Do you plan to make any other accounts of survivors, or is Fengming’s story enough? Will your next film be as different from this one as West of the Tracks was?

WANG: Filmmaking to me is a process of making a film, and then taking a break to think about what to do next. At the moment, I’m taking that break and can’t say what I’ll do next. I would like to make a film about my own family, my life in my early childhood in northwest China in the village where I grew up. Show my thoughts and feelings about that, and also about my mother’s life today. So it would be autobiographical.

SCOPE: Thinking of what you had to say about how Fengming began to seem like a ghost in a tomb, your director’s note for Brutality Factory remarks on the presence of ghosts in the torture chambers of the “struggle sessions” that you staged.

WANG: I can’t really say how other people prefer to see it. After Pedro Costa asked me to contribute to The State of the World, I had such a short time to make Brutality Factory that I couldn’t think about it very much. In fact, I made it in a few days. You could say that others spent more time thinking and talking about it than I did making it!

SCOPE: It’s the first time that you’ve directed actors. Were you getting a glimpse of what it was like to make a dramatic narrative film, even as you were blending certain visual aspects of West of the Tracks?

WANG: The choice of that location, I have to say, was because we didn’t have very much money. I figured the ruins of a factory would be easily within the budget.

SCOPE: Although it’s also a historically true location, related to the site of tortures.

WANG: Those events did happen many times in many places, in factories, in institutions, in offices, even schools. I know that from stories that have been passed down and told. I never witnessed or experienced it, but absorbed the stories passed through the grapevine. So, it seemed best to dramatize one of those stories that I found interesting.

SCOPE: Something that both Fengming and Brutality Factory share in common is that they offer two examples of telling stories about the horrors of the period from the late ‘50s into the ‘70s, and its systematic persecution and torture.

WANG: In neither case, I feel, were these films made fully under my control. There was a lot of happenstance in how each film came together. We didn’t know until the last minute that we were going to Cannes, so a final cut of Fengming had to be done in about ten days. A lot of unexpected factors went into each project, which makes anything that links them almost purely accidental. Every film is a hard and painful process, and very tiring and difficult. And even when it’s finished, I never really feel, “This is great, I’m happy and satisfied.” With West of the Tracks, I never felt great satisfaction when I was done. The hard truth is that for me it’s very hard to actually get a feeling of relief and satisfaction from completing a film.

Thanks to interpreter Robin Setton and producer Lihong Kang.

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