Review: Giuseppe di Salvatore in Filmexplorer
Artist Talk: December 8, 2018, 12pm. Wang Bing interviewed by Primo Mazzoni, Filmpodium Zürich
Wang Bing is one of the most important contemporary documentary filmmakers. He is known for his epic films dedicated to the world of work and everyday life including its constraints and opportunities. Produced in China, his films are screened at festivals such as the Venice Film Festival and the Locarno Film Festival; in galleries like Chantal Crousel, Paris; museums including Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris or Tate Modern, London; and international exhibitions as, for instance, documenta 14 in Kassel.
At Kunsthalle Zürich, Bing will be presenting two films: Mrs. Fang, (Fang Xiu Ying, 102 min. 2018, Golden Leopard 2017 for the cinema version) and Man with No Name (Wu Ming Zhe, 99 min., 2010). Both films focus on a single individual and that person’s fragile physicality. Bing follows Mrs. Fang and the man with no name with great immediacy and tenacious respect. Bing’s films are characterized by a careful intimacy, yet they are also committed to a hard realism. Among what has resulted from this approach are these two portraits that educate as well as challenge us.
Mrs. Fang follows the last ten days in the life of Chinese farmer Fang Xiu Ying, a 68-year-old woman with Alzheimer's disease. She returns to her small riverside hometown in southeastern Zhejiang Province in order to die there. She is surrounded by her family, relatives, and friends. Bing shows how people go about their everyday lives: illegal night fishing, as well as caring for the old woman, and discussing her and her life. Death and quotidian life are presented here side by side—and with great affection as well as a relentless candor rarely seen in film or in art; yet it is precisely this particular perspective that makes Mrs. Fang so extraordinary.
Man with no Name shows a man Bing encountered on a stretch of land outside Beijing while preparing for his first feature film. This nameless man literally lives underground, inhabiting a burrow and leading a life of self-sufficiency. Wang accompanies him through four seasons. Nothing and everything happens, every gesture becomes a kind of monument, nobody speaks, yet this is not a silent movie—sounds are everything. The result is an extraordinary portrait that reveals itself fully only through the patient gaze of the viewer.
“I am interested in the everyday life of these normal people and I don’t want to just repeat what the media has already shown. Usually these people aren’t given the right to express themselves—they are mute somehow; they have no voice. With my camera I give them the opportunity to finally speak out.”
We asked New York-based Swiss artist Tobias Madison, a movie connoisseur and admirer of Wang Bing, to share his views on the two films.
Both films are shown at Kunsthalle Zürich in alternating sequence twice a day:
Man with No Name (Wu ming zhe), 2010, 99 min., without language
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday:
11.15 – 12.54
14.45 – 16.24
Additional screening on Thursday:
18:15 – 19.54
10.15 – 11.54
13.45 – 15.24
Mrs. Fang (Fang Xiu Ying), 2018, 102 min., with English subtitles
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday:
13.00 – 14.42
16.30 – 18.12
12.00 – 13.42
15.30 – 17.12
Wang Bing was born 1967 and lives and works in Beijing.
Another Three-Body Problem
What does it mean to have a body—phrased without question mark—seems to be of central concern in Man with No Name . We never find out, however, who this person without name actually is: the viewer, the filmmaker Wang Bing, or the hermit we follow for ninety-nine minutes? When we watch films, we do not watch others, but watch others watching others. At first, there is nothing mysterious about this figure of the hermit. He seems to be mainly committed to self-preservation, engaged in the cultivation of a plot of land for the purpose of nutrition, the preparation of the latter, the construction and preservation of several dwellings. The film, which begins in winter, unfolds as a case study of these activities over four seasons so that at the end, everything can start all over again.
So what does it mean to have a body? Let’s consider this hermit’s sequence of activities as something universal, as a common denominator, shared by all bodies. The figure of the hermit is bound to the filmmaker as a cinematographic tool by way of its manifest self-preservation; the figure’s existence, its “staying alive,” is to be understood to parallel the film’s “staying alive”, to keep running, that in turn presupposes the presence of the filmmaker. Thus, one could ask, does the filmmaker perhaps crawl into the intimate interior of a den not because he wants to create a particularly intimate portrait of the hermit dwelling in his burrow, but because he himself is chilled to the bone? Not quite, except maybe that every movie is necessarily also a documentation of its own production: After about 32 minutes there is a sequence in which the body with the camera thwarts the other body’s path and creates a microsecond of irritation that immediately dissolves into an elegant evasive maneuver on both sides. Sometimes having a body just means blocking someone’s passage, in other words, occupying space. The space that in cinema vérité should not exist: the space of the cameraman that equals that of a fly on the wall. A few minutes later, in summer, the filmmaker again blocks a path, this time of the sun’s rays; we follow his shadow at the bottom of the frame, or rather, we follow the hermit as he reaps the crop sown 15 minutes earlier.
Wang Bing’s cinema is one of constellations—comparable to a planetary system in which stars with varying gravitational fields are positioned toward each other—the presence of the camera is understood as given and part of an equation including viewer and subject of the film. Always inherent to the documentary form is the slip-up arising from the film itself, meaning there is a tendency toward instability; for example, when suddenly a domesticated horse struts outside the frame of the recluse’s life (which is no longer the life of a recluse if someone with a camera is present) and the horn of a car is heard. However, it is precisely this instability that is so relevant to Wang Bing’s cinema, because it makes it possible to formulate an ethics, because having a body also means being aware of the forces it exerts on surrounding bodies. A sequence from ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), a film not on view at Kunsthalle Zürich: A straight shot in the cell of a psychiatric institution. An inmate frantically wields a shoe in order to kill a fly on the walls of his cell while two other inmates rhythmically comment on the scene from their beds. The episode calls up both existentialist theater and a documentary fly-on-the-wall technique, where real-world situations are shot without actual interference of the camera. The camera’s distance and the low resolution of the HD format make it impossible for the viewer to actually see the fly, and so the scene’s narrative tension relies on us not knowing whether the fly actually exists or whether it only lives in the inmate’s head. After about 10 minutes, however, the fly lands on the camera’s lens, moving up and down inside the frame as a blurry, black something or other. The body with the camera then moves toward the patient to show him the fly on the lens in order to release him from his emotional turmoil. Such stutters, tipping filmic space out of balance, could just as well be units of measurement with which we can gauge the distance between all participating and hypothetically involved bodies—at least if we want to use cinema also as a navigational device: As a map of mediatic space and the relationships occurring inside of it at a moment when these relationships threaten to cease to exist.
For Mrs. Fang, having a body also implies its finitude, a trajectory toward dying. For cinema, this creates a dilemma: Mrs. Fang’s body is already terminally ill at the beginning of the film, meaning that the precept of the mobility of bodies, which makes cinema possible in the first place, is no longer in effect. And so, instead, this body is captured through those around it; it functions as the gravitational center of an expanded family and the dealings of those involved with an imminent death and the still-existing relationship—or the body operates simply as a map of those relationships. At the same time, proceeding from this center, the film can reflect upon itself—on its tendency towards finitude—in a circular, outward motion that is nevertheless directed inward: The electric shocks issuing from the poles used by the fishermen whom we follow again and again in the course of Mrs. Fang end the life of the river fish; the fishermen use the fish’s conjunction with water as a medium for their killing. In a village whose economy is based on fishing, the bodies of course need the fish to stay alive. And Wang Bing needs the image of killing fish not only to record the bodies’ entanglement with the river by way of the fish, but because the image—or its electrical agitation—is like a substitute for the absence of vital motion in Mrs. Fang’s body. Accordingly, the electric shocks allow us to look into Mrs. Fang’s empty eyes for a little longer without getting bored; the blank stare can slide past the camera a little longer.
This staring past the viewer while he or she looks into these eyes is significant. Not only because it is exemplary of Wang Bing’s larger project. A project that reflects on what it means to be visible or to disappear.