Wang Bing at the Harvard Film Archive

On Friday, November 9, Wang Bing presented Mrs. Fang (2017) at the Harvard Film Archive. As a documentary filmmaker associated with the New Chinese Documentary Movement, Bing’s works have focused on poverty, labor, rural and industrial life in China. Having webbed these thematic contents with emotionally charged narratives in films such as Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks), Bing has emerged as a triumphant director of the New Chinese Documentary Movement. Developed in the late 1980s, the New Chinese Documentary Movement acted as a catalyst against state-produced films and documentaries. The first phase of the movement focused on a representing and recognizing the marginalized classes of China. The second phase pursued creative expressions of filmmakers as they developed personal styles and aesthetic ingenuities.Syntheses of these two objectives are reflected in Wang Bing’s cinematic portraits of Three Sisters (2012),which won the Orizzonti Award at the 69th Venice International Film Festival and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013),which premiered at the festival the following year. As precursors of the Fifth Generation, whose films are notably focused on social reality, “individualism, and market-oriented opportunism,” the New Chinese Documentary Movement has found its course within the international film scene with their stylistic productions of low budget personal films.2

The film begins in Zheijian - an eastern province that borders the East China Sea, where a robust Mrs. Fang Xiuying gazes in the distance. Dressed in a patterned maroon jacket, she is framed in an interior space where her solemn expression and silence invoke a fateful air to her physicality. The interior space is terse and predictive of the course which the film will take. As viewers begin to behold her reticence and presence, the film transitions to an emaciated Mrs. Fang laying motionless in bed, her mouth agape with teeth protruding. In one scene, a family member is concerned about the stillness and the exposure of her teeth and mouth, while another responds with, she has endured this condition ever since her health began to deteriorate. Throughout the entire film, there are several long close-ups that capture Mrs. Fang’s face. Blank expressions of a bare and undernourished face contrast the initial footage we see of her. These drawn-out scenes provoke feelings of deterioration, mortality, and alienation within a rural community. To further illustrate this, Bing has weaved scenes of Mrs. Fang’s brother and other men fishing at night with electrified fishing poles. He offers a larger picture of her environment and activities the village participates in. This slant towards objectivity as a stylistic element bears ethical concerns for a vulnerable woman is passively filmed as she slowly succumbs to death.

Mrs. Fang’s family members and neighbors continue to observe her deteriorating health. They inform each other of the bed sores and redness that appear on her back due to a lack of movement and activity. We begin to notice the normality of Mrs. Fang’s living conditions. Her grandson Weiwei who is responsible for her care is nowhere to be found. He is later located gambling cards and a conversation about the family’s responsibility in taking care of Mrs. Fang erupts. Some argue that her death is inevitable, which causes emotional tension between them. A turning point of the film commences when Mrs. Fang exhibits signs of weakness with a shortness of breath and semi-open eyelids. Relatives and neighbors surround and examine her bodily reactions as death slowly grips her. In one scene, we become conscious of our positioning as outsiders in witnessing her gradual deterioration as Bing films the family surrounding her bed with their backs turned from us.

With Mrs. Fang’s inability to communicate vocally, I questioned the consensual agreements between the director, the subject, and family members. During a conversation that followed the screening with the Harvard Film Director, Haden West, Wang Bing stated his objective was to create an emotional and humanistic work. It’s important to note that Bing was initially invited by Mrs. Fang’s daughter in 2015 to visit their home and village. He met Mrs. Fang and begin shooting footage with no concrete direction. A year later Bing was informed of Mrs. Fang’s advanced stages of Alzheimer’s by her daughter and from thereon, he intuited the documentary. Within the course of seven days at their home, he filmed an unsettling portrait of death dominating over a village.

An issue that arises from this film is its ethical approach, a recognizable subject familiar to generations of Chinese documentary. Take the globally acclaimed film Wheat Harvest (2009) by Xu Tong, which exploited sex workers who did not properly consent to their filming, therefore, jeopardizing their lives and relatives.The film addresses key issues concerning the pursuit of creativity, which is contingent to the emotional exploitation of the subject by the director.

After leaving the screening, I was overburdened by the great uncertainty of the film’s agenda. This uncertainty loomed for days as I asked, does the film serve as a visual diary of Wang Bing personal life or as a documentary that is solely stylistic of the New Chinese Documentary Movement? The latter would seem befitting in describing a work that is psychological unsettling in its narrative and visual form. Bing’s determination in presenting a realistic portrait of death is opportunistic given his critical acclaims within the Western spheres of film. Given that his inspirations for the project were personal, Mrs. Fang is sensationalistic in nature and is consumed with a wide array of emotions that confound the viewer as to the purpose of work. This is a film that insist on clarifying the ethics of documentary for it exhibits a perverse position of documenting impending death in a gruesome manner. Against this backdrop, the ethical approaches of documentary cinema as a personal statement and a visual art form should possess a sympathetic attention that considers the affect of loss, mourning, and memory after the death of the subject.

[1]   Chiu, K. (2015). The Ethical Turn in the Production and Reception of New Chinese-Language Documentary Films. Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 27(1), 44-74.

[2]  Xiaoming, C., Kang, L., & Shi, A. (2000). The Mysterious Other. Postmodernism and China, 228.

[3]  Chiu K. (2015).