From Cinema Scope #66 (Winter 2016)
The violent convulsions in the Middle East and Africa and grotesque asymmetries of wealth and poverty between north and south have put fundamental pressures on wealthier, conservative, defensive societies of Europe and North America. Refugees are everyone’s problem; they represent the fulcrum around which debates on the shape of our evolving societies rage. So it’s for good reason that cinema currently has refugees on its mind. The 2016 Berlinale jury awarded the Golden Bear to Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee crisis documentary Fire at Sea, and the perennially political festival offered several approaches to the subject, including Philip Scheffner’s experimental Havarie and the prize-winning shorts Anchorage Prohibited and A Man Returned.
China, though, has plenty of its own issues—political repression, environmental degradation, distortions of a modern post-capitalist economy—and Chinese directors, like the great independent documentarian Wang Bing, have generally maintained a laser-like focus on internal affairs. But Wang’s cinema, from its spectacular beginning with the epic West of the Tracks (Tiexi Qu, 2003), has always been in some vital way about people needing refuge. Refuge from a terminally decayed post-socialist system crashing down around them in West of the Tracks; refuge from a series of terror-ridden campaigns of violent political repression for Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007); refuge from brutal poverty and family disintegration in Three Sisters (San zimei, 2012); and refuge from both the external world and from madness in the internal exile of a sanatorium-cum-prison in ’Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng ai, 2013). A brief look at the last two titles can suggest how Wang’s latest film, Ta’ang, prolongs and refines his thematic concerns as well as his stylistic methods.
Three Sisters is about three young girls, living high in the mountains of Yunnan. They have been abandoned by their mother and virtually left to their own devices by their father, who is forced to earn a living away from home. These sisters have no place of “refuge” other than home, but home in this case is a desperately poor, bleakly un-nurturing place, where the girls are left largely to their own devices. Though a neighbouring aunt feeds them, they essentially take care of each other. They live, play, and sleep in dirt. Their home is a cave-like dwelling—dark, dirty, and littered with root vegetables, shared with their few scrawny domestic animals. Under Wang’s compassionate gaze, though, this is no study in cinematic miserablism: the girls (ten-year-old Yingying, six-year-old Zhenzhen, and little four-year-old Fenfen) have fully realized personalities and emotional lives. They play and work at the household tasks necessary for survival.
The most basic refuge, the family, is here broken, incomplete, barely sustaining. Yingying is mother, father, and sister to her two younger siblings. She carries this burden with efficiency and a kind of stoic determination and strength that the situation forces upon her, and that her indomitable character sustains. Their father does return from time to time, to bring some clothes and share a meal before he goes off to work again. Towards the end of the film, his new girlfriend and her child come to join the three sisters. Though an ad hoc newly constituted family group forms, Zhenzhen articulates for us its continuing inadequacy. With sustained observation and exquisite empathy, Wang locates something that is without shape or form, but that is even more real than the mere hardscrabble details of a wearing struggle for existence: he makes visible a kind of invincible energy, a life force that pushes our three heroines to survive.
The inmates of the Yunnan hospital-cum-prison of ’Til Madness Do Us Part can also be seen as living a kind of broken life in an inverted refuge. The space Wang portrays is a Chinese state mental hospital where the inmates-patients are mentally ill, socially deviant, criminally convicted, or sometimes merely ill-adapted to social life. The Chinese official medical-penal apparatus has isolated them from society by dumping them in this closed system of medical care, incarceration, and punishment. We see a full and complex range of patient behaviours, from compassion to brutality, gentleness to abuse, longing to violent estrangement, both in the relationships among the patients, and between them and the hospital officials. Forced from the open, everyday world into a microcosm of surveillance, treatment, and punishment, these prisoners are the negative image of refugees, though their plight captures plenty of a refugee’s terror, subjection, displacement, and confinement.
As usual, Wang offers a visual critique that goes much deeper than a simple microcosm of a larger authoritarian society, and provides nuance and ambiguity as rich and as perplexing as the world itself. He is always interested in minutely detailed observational research into individual behaviours in a group context and discovers how people behave when external circumstances impose severe restrictions on their ability to survive in the ways they are accustomed, or how they can even sometimes thrive in ways that accord with their hopes or dreams. Rather than a depressingly bleak tale of suffering under incarceration and punishment, Wang’s powers of observation and synthesis reveal uncanny, minor epiphanies amidst the general squalor. He finds capacities for happiness and freedom that many of the patients create under their bleak conditions. Over the film’s almost-four-hour running time, we learn how various kinds of companionship and association can thrive (and sometimes break down) when wounded souls are thrown together, left to their own devices. These refugee-prisoners, isolated from the outside world, forge relationships which can embrace companionship, partnership, longing, erotic tenderness, imaginative romance, and mutual support. The film’s Chinese title, after all, is Feng ai, Love-Madness.
With his new documentary Ta’ang, which just received its world premiere in the Berlinale Forum, Wang literalizes the subject of refugees and puts their plight at the centre of his film in the persons of Burmese Ta’ang ethnic minority refugees who have crossed to China’s Yunnan province to escape a violent insurgency raging near their homes in Myanmar. As the Burmese Army fight against armed ethnic minority forces, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Ta’ang villagers are either forced from their homes (suspected of supporting the TNLA) or flee the violence by crossing the nearby seemingly unguarded border with China. This subject is unprecedented for Wang: his previous films have all been located firmly within China, their subjects generally ethnic Han majority Chinese. Here Wang goes, if not international, then at least to the border, joining his fellow independent documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang’s By the Edge of the River (2006) and Crime and Punishment (2007) in filming along China’s margins with the rest of the world.
But Ta’ang is at the same time utterly of a piece with Wang’s previous work, not just because it puts at its centre disempowered people who are victimized by social circumstances beyond their control. More central to this film’s success, and what accounts for its quasi-incantatory power, is Wang’s shooting style. As usual, he stays near his subjects, in generally longish takes that doggedly but respectfully stick with the person under observation, at a medium distance that permits their situation to be framed within an environment rendered in great detail. His camera seems to melt away, as, paradoxically, his subjects become accustomed to his intimately distanced presence. They look at the camera, but they also act as if it’s not there, divulging with absolutely natural authority not only their physical presence but also something like their “souls.”
“Wang Bing films souls” could be a rough approximation of the impossible magic he regularly weaves in these uncannily “realist” documentaries. He accomplishes this thanks to a combination of extraordinary sensitivity to his subjects’ body language and an uncanny ability to choose just the right distance. Not too close, so as not to intrude on and disrupt the aura around their autonomous dignity and existence; not too far, so as to preserve an extraordinary intimacy that allows us to feel as if we’re seeing right through their skins, as if they were made transparent via their bodies and words, revealing the complex emotions, histories, and social relationships that make up the essence of one’s personality. (Maybe that’s the “soul.”) This is solely accomplished through observation, as Wang rarely interviews his subjects on camera: typically they reveal themselves through conversations with others, telephone calls with spouses or relative on the other side of the Burmese border, or through long nighttime confessional conversations with fellow refugees, villagers, or family members, around dimly flickering fires in their temporary campsites. Even barriers of language (Wang doesn’t speak Burmese or any of the local border dialects) don’t seem to be an obstruction to Wang’s hyper-sensitive observational skills.
Ta’ang is structured as taking place over four days and three nights. The film’s first day takes place at a refugee encampment at Maidihe, Yunnan, about 500 metres from the border with Myanmar. Several Chinese flags in the background announce under whose nominal authority the refugees are situated. This sequence, following several Ta’ang minority refugees, boys, girls, women, and men setting up their rudimentary lean-tos, contains the only direct representation of authority in the film. He has chosen to open his film with a shot of what I take to be a camp guard (he’s wearing a military-style camouflage uniform, but is most likely not a PLA soldier) kicking a woman refugee who is sitting on the ground, rudely warning her (presumably for her own good) to move with her children to a safer area, since the wind has blown some tarps off the roof of their shabby tent. Violent confrontations with figures representing state authority are one basic constitutive element of “refugee cinema,” and in fact such images feature in the most memorable representations we’ve seen of Syrian refugees making their way through hostile borders in Europe. But Wang, after this opening shot, never shows us another.
Mainstream refugee documentaries usually give us a second kind of standard scene: friendly authorities who assist the refugees, typically UN or other NGO staff who alleviate their suffering and guide them to places of refuge. None of these appear in Ta’ang. Though there are occasional indirect signs that they might be there (a UNICEF backpack; flashlights and coats seemingly issued from the same source), Wang chooses never to show us officials or volunteers helping the Ta’ang, just as, with the exception of that opening shot, he never shows border guards or soldiers impeding their movements or threatening them. What Wang constructs with these choices is a set of images of self-sufficient communities, drawing on their own meagre-to-non-existent resources to survive, relying on pre-existing relationships of family, clan, village, or sometimes just on basic human sympathy. Where the “standard” European-North American refugee documentary is obsessed with authority, Ta’ang is singularly focused on the refugees themselves. They form a complete system. All the resources they have are internal. There is no “rescue”: they either support each other and save themselves, or they don’t survive.
The first night takes place at this camp. The second day moves to a crowded temporary indoor refuge, in a tea factory in Dayingpan. These refugees are slightly more settled: they are able to work, stripping and bundling sugar cane. We find out later that the young woman workers’ pay is delayed, if it materializes at all. The second night introduces the film’s unforgettable visual motif. At first, small fires illuminate the refugees with a red glow that seems to invite the camera through their skin, into their thoughts and feelings. Then Wang reveals immense fires behind the refugee camps, probably burning sugar cane leaves. We see a young girl illuminated from a small red glowing fire in front, while simultaneously silhouetted by the enormous yellow fire-and-smoke conflagration behind. Light articulates this refugee’s being: impassable flame and destruction behind her, the soft glow of shelter and perhaps a glimmer of flickering hope in front of her.
The third day introduces a trek from camp to town, as an extended family rides a pickup truck that dumps them in a small Chinese town where they temporarily squat, helpless and passive, eyed by curious Chinese passersby, waiting for their next lift to their next destination. The following night is the film’s tour de force, a combination of several sequences, separated by fades to black, of refugees sitting and sleeping around fires, sometimes exhausted from their trek, sometimes sleepless with anxiety or uncertainty, as they unburden themselves of the fears of separation from their husbands and relive the terror of fleeing their homes at the approach of Burmese soldiers. (We usually listen to women talking, and watch their children at play, eat, and rest; Wang’s camera relatively rarely rests long on men in Ta’ang.) Once, in an eloquent close-up, a woman’s hand shelters a candle.
The film’s final section, the fourth day, is an extraordinary “on the road” set piece. This is another larger rhythm within the film, as it moves from opening stasis to tentative forward motion. A group of co-villagers are fleeing up Chinese mountain roads from artillery fire that we can hear on the Myanmar side of the Chinese border. Unlike the refugees in the previous sections, these people seem to have just arrived in China and have no idea where they are going. They are stalled, on a steep roadside, their oxen secured by stakes driven into the ground, as they try to figure out where they can spend the night. Finally, a more enterprising group of about a dozen young women and children (and one tirelessly spry older “aunty” who outpaces them on their strenuous uphill climb) head out to a “shelter” they have heard about, which turns out to be a shabby roof supported by poles—better than sleeping in the open, apparently. They set out to sweep the underlying dirt and prepare for the evening, as Wang’s camera moves unusually far back, glimpsing the refugees as small moving specks against a landscape of unwelcoming hills, the echoing sounds of Myanmar army artillery never far away.
Though Wang’s key films all, to some extent, depict variations of people seeking refuge, it’s important to avoid an overly systematized or schematic view of his documentary practice. In a way he’s engaged in something like scientific research, sensitively gathering data that most others would miss, and then applying his acute sense of discrimination and proportion to assemble the data into a meaningfully shaped and organized report on an aspect of “reality.” Of course the reality effect that documentary art strives to achieve is always, consciously or unconsciously, an ideological construct, a production of certain specific techniques of cinematic manipulation and creation (or re-creation) that take raw observational material and shape it through editing into something that convinces viewers that what they are seeing on screen represents something like direct, unmediated access to the “real.” Wang’s genius lies in his ability to get extremely close to this ideal and to generate a reality effect that seems to elide the boundaries between what is depicted on screen and what exists in the world. He convinces us of this with his acutely judged sense of the proper and revealing distance between camera and subject; his finely calibrated moral sense of when to shoot and when not to; and especially his unparalleled ability to situate subjects visually and aurally in a spatial-temporal field. The meaning that accrues to Wang’s subjects originates precisely in this relationship between person and environment through time. They are who they are, and we see who they are, through the changing matrix of history and geography that Wang evokes with his shots.
But more than that, Wang is a visual and aural poet. Ta’ang is unforgettable for the sounds and images it leaves burned into our memories. The film’s large-scale rhythm is built around dusk and nighttime. Three nights impose themselves on the refugees’ days. Three times the skies darken, and Wang finds the natural light of fires at dusk and then fires in the blackest night. This natural, flickering, red-orange glow shines on the refugees’ faces, revealing and crafting its own unique, magical, and sublime juxtapositions while evoking Georges de la Tour’s single-candle illuminations or performing Caravaggesque astonishments of lightning-like illumination amidst dramatic darkness. A young girl against raging background fires seems fixed in a terrifying space between safety and horror; a circle of mutually supporting villagers trade intimacies bathed in the soft, safe, warm glow of a single fire. It’s hard to avoid seeing self-conscious symbolism in that close-up of a woman’s hand repeatedly shielding a flickering candle from gusts of wind that threaten to blow it out. Wang works with sound, too, in ways that both situate and reassure, fixing the refugees in the unsettling natural world and allowing us to feel intrusions from man-made perils from outside: crickets, dogs, the rustling of wind on one hand, rumbling motorcycles and trucks and artillery bombardment on the other.
In Cinema Scope 54, Thom Andersen wrote that in Three Sisters Wang Bing locates a Straubian “fire in every shot,” a phrase that equally applies to Ta’ang. There is light for these Ta’ang refugees, abandoned by social support systems—families, homes, villages, social groups, tribal allegiances—and thrown to their own devices. The light also comes from within, from the strength that Wang regularly uncovers, buried deep within their humanity, to find life and hope, to move forward, and to insist on survival in the face of the worst objective conditions. This luminous strength also emerges from the connections between them, provisionally forged bonds of social solidarity, from the associations of mutual sympathy and aid, from the physical and emotional sustenance that the three sisters, the inmates of the mental hospital, and the Ta’ang people develop when thrown together in seemingly unendurable conditions that have to be endured. Wang’s cinema unearths the Prometheus in all of us: we give ourselves fire, we give each other fire, and life becomes liveable.