Winning the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival for his latest film, Mrs. Fang, Wang Bing is the second documentary director in recent years—after Gianfranco Rosi—to earn the top award from a major European art film festival, which historically tends to favor fiction over non-fiction. This perhaps indicates that documentary film is no longer a subgenre of cinema but rather an indispensable site of aesthetic and political intervention in an era when the discussion of truth and realness has become increasingly urgent. Two days before the award was announced, over beers, cigarettes, and a Chinese meal prepared by Tibetans at La Rotonda in Locarno, Wang Bing spoke with me about his influences, the geopolitical and topographical dimensions of his work, and the making of Mrs. Fang.
Zoe Meng Jiang (Rail): I have wanted to ask you this question for a long time—how did you manage to capture that phone call at the very end of He Fengming (2007)? In the film, after three hours of static shots of Ms. He’s oral account of her persecution during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s, this unexpected phone call reveals that Ms. He is still engaging in activism and connecting with other survivors of the labor camps. This ending seems to symbolically link China’s traumatic history to its present. The closure of the film suggests there’s not yet a closure to that phase of history.
Wang Bing: I filmed with rapture when that phone call happened. I was so excited. I had borrowed a camera, bought a lens, and driven for a whole day to Lanzhou. I didn’t rest and went straight to film He Fengming. When the phone call happened, I felt a great relief.
In the early 2000s, I was at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and randomly went to a screening. It was a feature film, recording only an old lady talking, with almost no cuts. I thought the film was genius, though I couldn’t understand at all what the old lady was talking about, and didn’t know anything about the film. It was not until several years later that I found out it’s Jean Eustache’s Numéro Zéro (1971). Eustache filmed his mother recounting her life story. The film is an exemplification of the merit of zero editing.
Rail: It was an influence on the making of He Fengming.
Wang: To some extent, yes. I also used this method of minimal editing in He Fengming. It might be easy to film anything with this method, but it’s hard to tell whether it can produce a good film.
Rail: Have you experienced failure before? Say you’ve got lots of raw footage but couldn’t use it, or you didn’t know how to end a film after a long period of shooting.
Wang: Never. There was never one project that I failed to finish. Only once maybe. But it was not because of me. After shooting Three Sisters (2012), I was very interested in a village near where the three sisters lived. I got sick at the time, so I hired a few cinematographers to shoot some footage in the village while I recovered from my illness. They went on filming for a few months, but the footage they got was not so good, and I couldn’t use it. But every project I started myself, I finished. I always plan ahead and estimate how much time I would need.
Rail: You’ve been to both art school and film school—after finishing your study at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, you went to Beijing Film Academy. What prompted your decision to go to film school? And what was it like being at Beijing Film Academy in the 1990s?
Wang: I was really into cinema. In my undergraduate years, I watched three films almost every day. I’m from the same generation as the Sixth Generation filmmakers like Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke, but I went to Beijing Film Academy after them, and took on a completely different trajectory. I had the chance to study with Zhou Chuanji (1925 – 2017) in Beijing. He was an excellent professor. During the Cultural Revolution, he secretly translated all the major Western film theories into Chinese. He traveled around the world in the 1980s and brought back thousands of video cassettes. In his classes I watched the films of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and Bergman. It was Tarkovsky’s films that made me understand what cinema really is. But the influence of Bergman didn’t last very long. I also loved Pasolini. I think all filmmakers in our time owe something to Pasolini.
Rail: The way I understand your practice is, the choice of location is an important or even fundamental part of your artistic decision-making. It seems that your filmmaking can be divided into three phases: Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), He Fengming and The Ditch (2010) were from places you’ve lived in and are familiar with—Shenyang, where you studied, and Northwestern China, where you grew up; then you moved on to Yunnan Province in Southwestern China, where you made Three Sisters (2012), ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), Father and Son (2014), and others. I read that you encountered the three sisters on your way to visit the mother of your deceased friend, the writer Sun Shixiang, who is from rural Yunnan and died in 2001 at the tragically young age of 32. It was because of this that I got to know about Sun’s autobiographical novel, Shenshi (History of the Gods), an epic about rural life in China.
Wang: Yes. It is a tremendously important novel, but it’s sadly unknown and neglected.
Rail: And then you followed young people from Yunnan to Eastern China, where they become migrant workers, and where your recent films have been set. Can you talk about your filmmaking practice in relation to these different places? Particularly Yunnan, where you spent your most prolific years.
Wang: For me, different places mean different cinematic spaces, and my approach to the narrative and shooting plan would change accordingly. Northeastern Chinese people are portrayed the way they are in Tie Xi Qu. And to depict Northwestern China, I chose prison as my subject. Because for thousands of years of Chinese history, the Northwest has been the place where many individuals were imprisoned or exiled. You can still find traces of their existence there. Prisons can tell us a lot, about politics in the past and politics in the present. I grew up in the Northwest and I know what the truth of living there is. That’s why I didn’t look at the Northwest in the exotic way that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige did in their film Yellow Earth (1984).
To digress a little, Chinese cinema in the past is mostly an institutional cinema. The films are more like propaganda than cinema. Films like Yellow Earth are but extensions or variations of institutional cinema, not real cinematic interventions. To some extent they are similar to Xie Jin’s films, or not even as good as Xie Jin.1 What are the real feelings of the people who dwell on this land? They are not concerned with this question. When representing people in films, we must be very conscious about any given ideological position.
The Northwest is the Gobi Desert, the Huangtu Plateau. In such landscapes, people live a bold, rough, and strong existence. It’s not that different in Yunnan. Though Yunnan features green mountains and blue waters, people there are still tough, tenacious, or even intrepid, in a very external way. Their strength is no less than those from the Northwest. Yunnan is at the upper part of the Yangtze River, which could be the reason why there is something primitive in Yunnan people. I always fantasized about the Yangtze River area. The Yellow River and the Yangtze River regions are the two cradles of Chinese civilization. They cultivate two different ways of life. I grew up in the Yellow River region, so the other region was very mysterious to me. I wanted to live and understand the Yangtze River culture and put it in my film. Therefore, after finishing working in the Northwest, I went right to Yunnan.
Rail: The American anthropologist James C. Scott has famously defined people living in Zomia Highlands as “barbaric by design”—that Zomia’s ethnic groups are formed by people who run away from various forms of state governance. Zomia consists of parts of seven Asian countries, including Yunnan and Myanmar.2 I was thinking, after you documented the Ta’ang people crossing the border between Myanmar and Yunnan to seek refuge in Ta’ang (2016), a map of Zomia sort of emerges from your filmography.
Wang: I know Scott’s book. I haven’t read it yet. If there are things in common among the highland ethnic groups, it’s because of the harsh cultural and natural circumstances. Yunnan ethnic minorities in past Chinese cinema are always stereotypes of peaceful people who dance and sing a lot.3 But they are not like that at all! Most Chinese don’t know what they are really like. I entered the region and found them extremely respectable. Like the way Sun Shixiang depicted in his novel, they live in a brutal environment. They are so full of hope and dreams. They strive to change their lives, but reality is hard to change.
Yunnan’s terrain is magnificent, even more so than the Huangtu Plateau. Valleys connecting giant mountains can go one or two thousand meters deep. A local song says: “There are green mountains after eight hundred green mountains.” And then on the other side you have the Tibetan Plateau, the highest and largest plateau in the world. Such an environment determines the local people’s emotional lives. They are strong and fierce. Relationships among people can be so direct that it would seem ferocious to us. In the past, we didn’t know that they are like this. The Northeastern Yunnan, where I made most of my films, has produced many heroic figures in Chinese history.
I’m also fascinated by the lower part of Yangtze River, the region of Shanghai, and Zhejiang Province, where modern Chinese culture originated and traditional Chinese culture is best preserved. I made my three most recent films there, also hoping to enter the cultural lives of Eastern China.
Rail: Could you briefly introduce Mrs. Fang?
Wang: Mrs. Fang was commissioned by documenta 14, conceived as a video art piece. Soon it was also invited by the Locarno Film Festival. Fang Xiuying is the mother of a good friend of mine. I was going to make a documentary about her in 2015, but it was postponed because I was too busy at the time. In 2016, the friend called to tell me that her mother’s illness had grown severe, and she might not live very long. I went to see Fang Xiuying right away. When I got there, I realized it’d be difficult to make a documentary about her. I hesitated, but still decided to film her. We filmed the last eight days of her life. So it’s a story about a dying old woman.
Rail: In the first three minutes of Mrs. Fang, we see footage of Fang in a relatively functional state. She must have been more or less lucid at the time. I’m wondering, what did she think of being filmed?
Wang: In fact, at the time in 2015, she had already lost the ability to talk. But she still had memories of her children. For example, whenever her daughter came home, she would approach her and hold her hand. I don’t think she understood what it is to be filmed. I only filmed her when she was happy and not stressed. So I don’t have much footage of her in a functional state, only a few shots. I thought I would have more time later, but life is precarious. Ultimately, the time I got with her was short.
Rail: There are three kinds of shots in Mrs. Fang: close-ups of Fang’s face; shots of Fang’s room in a theatrical setup, with the bed in the foreground, Fang’s family members in the middle ground attending to her, and more people in the background talking or watching TV; and handheld tracking shots of Fang’s brother-in-law going electrofishing on the lake. When did you come up with this visual structure—was it during the shooting or the editing?
Wang: The structure was set during the shooting. I mainly used two lenses. One is an 80mm telephoto lens, and the other is a 19mm wide-angle lens. For the indoor scenes, it’s better to use static shots with deep focus or in close-up, and for the outdoor scenes I try to balance this with camera movements to make it more dynamic.
Rail: Do you have your customary cameras?
Wang: I always change cameras for different situations. I started making films with a MiniDV, then HDV, and now I’m using a 4K digital video camera. People often talk about cinema in terms of composition, color, lighting, etc. But the image itself is of no avail. Cinema is not about composition nor color, but about balancing power dynamics, about continuous change.
Rail: How do you usually find this balance of power dynamics?
Wang: It’s a matter of training. Now within any given situation, I’m able to find the balance in one minute.
Rail: Why would you film the scenes of Fang’s brother-in-law going fishing, including the long take at the end, three months after the death of Fang? Is there any symbolic significance to these scenes?
Wang: The region where Fang lives is known as “the fertile land of fish and rice” in China. But you can see that everything looks decrepit now. Older people don’t have much to do. To help out with the family expenses, they sometimes go fishing on the lake. One evening when I was filming Fang, her brother-in-law told me he was going fishing. I thought it’d be a chance for me to see how people around Fang live, or exist. So I went with him and filmed the process. The reason those scenes are always at night is because electrofishing is illegal in China. Nowadays fish farming in all rural Chinese rivers and lakes is contracted out. Ordinary people don’t have access to fishing anymore. Natural resources in the countryside are depleted, even in China’s real “land of fish and rice.”
- The history of Chinese cinema is usually marked by a generational periodization. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are the most famous directors from the Fifth Generation, and Xie Jin is the representative of the Fourth Generation who made most of his films during the extreme leftist era.
- Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2010. The book is translated into Chinese.
- The most well-known and canonized example is the romantic musical Five Golden Flowers (1959), featuring the Bai minority in Yunnan.