The cinema of Wang Bing is one that seems, even if a documentary, one where the physical body of a director has been removed, and the camera is guided solely by compassion. With this in mind, there is very little one can analyze or really write about – as my colleague Andy Rector stated quite astutely regarding this new work: “You’re with real people now – Essential cinema.” Wang shares an affinity with the Portuguese director Pedro Costa – both have found themselves making representational films but with the complete awareness and understanding of the potential pitfalls of such an approach. (Costa is even on record stating that Wang is his favorite contemporary filmmaker) Firstly, this appears to stem from the desire to document what otherwise would go undocumented. If there is another serious similarity – it’s that they both have found a way to remove a subject from any point of representational stasis; they have found ways to film with making those in-front of them subjects to their cameras. But while Costa seems to have moved in another direction since, Wang seems to be capable of doing this in a form that is impossibly natural. And while Costa aestheticizes and blurs (if not make entirely unnecessary) the lines between fiction and nonfiction, Wang gives us solely the world as is, more importantly the faces in it, and most importantly makes no attempt towards dialecticism within filmed reality and moreover makes no attempt to reconstitute it either. (Not that Costa necessarily does these things, but to discuss that would drift too far from the work at hand.)
Writing about this film is immensely difficult – one doesn’t just observe a pilgrimage but goes on one together with those filmed. All we are given is the reality of perseverance – that children can still laugh under the worst of circumstances, that a person whose shelter changes day-by-day can still prefer to listen to music rather than sleep, that even in such disparate instances a person’s first instinct is to take care of another. There is no point to be made, each image speaks for itself and furthermore any degree of formal analysis would feel duplicitous, if not flat-out impossible. There are few films I can think of in recent years where those projected in front of me feel more real. All that matters is that we experience the experience of another.
Breaking down this film into ‘sequences,’ almost feels against the purpose of the film itself but (minus one unforgettable, extended sequence by a campfire) there are a series of shots which have remained with me in a manner that is both acutely haunting and life-affirming. The Ta’ang refugees pause momentarily upon a hill – a moment of reflection, rest, neither or both – we only see the faces. These shots are noble, statuesque ones – at the risk of sounding facile, they look positively Fordian. (Now at the risk of insensitivity, something WB is not lacking in is compositional skill) We hear the bombs in the distance grow louder and louder – yet no one is ready to move. They stare into the distance and it feels like an intensely ‘cinematic’ moment; in the final of these shots, a crouched man seems to stare upwards, almost as though inadvertently searching for a meaning to this. But this crouched man suddenly breaks the rhythm and turns his face & eyes straight into the lens, and directly at us – the viewer, watching in a theatre thousands of miles away. To him, it may have meant nothing – but to the viewer it’s a reminder that what we are seeing is reality, is concrete in the world, and is happening now.
This moment almost brought me to tears, both because of the gravity of the situation and because I was reminded that it is possible for there to be a cinema where the sole purpose is to help others. It seems an almost indispensable reminder that in this seeming-era of perverse docu-fictions, films whose self-reflexivity is for the sole purpose of being self-reflexive, etc – that one can still have faith within the recorded image. It’s proof that one can still film representationally and honestly: a profoundly humane film, and to me it’s likely it will remain the most important film I’ll see in 2016. There is nothing left to say – you can only see it in these images.