China’s Lower Depths

Dead Souls

a film by Wang Bing
Les Films d’Ici
Cao Zonghua, a survivor of the Anxi-Shigong camp, with his wife in Wang Bing’s Dead Souls

The literature on the Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing teems with terms of immensity. He is said to make “monster films,” “films fleuves,” and films of “leviathan extremes”—phrases that attempt to measure the enormity, in both ambition and running time, of the director’s many epic investigations into his country’s traumatic past and precarious present. Wang himself can be self-deprecating about his monumental approach. “And the film was, once again, too long,” he admitted in one interview. In his nine-hour first film, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003), he included a song whose title seemed to mock the impatient viewer: “Baby, Aren’t You Tired of This Yet?” Crude Oil (2008), one of his several portraits of the hardscrabble lives of workers in today’s China, takes up fourteen hours, a fraction of the original seventy that Wang planned to distill from an even greater mass of footage.

Wang’s most recent monolith, Dead Souls, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The longest film ever presented as an official selection there (it runs to eight hours), Dead Souls revisits the grim subject of Wang’s only fiction film, The Ditch (2010): the deadly “reeducation” camps that the Chinese Communist Party established in the late 1950s to punish and extirpate the “Rightists” who had criticized life in China after Mao encouraged such candor with his exhortation to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” The project of Dead Souls, which includes close to twenty clandestine interviews with some of the few survivors of the Chinese gulags, is not to contribute to the debate over Mao’s intentions but to ensure that the country’s history is honestly and fully witnessed. Dead Souls joins such works as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (to which Wang’s film has been speciously compared) and Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile as a vast memorial to state barbarity.1

Born in 1967 in Xi’an, shortly after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wang was protected from the chaos of the ensuing decade by his parents, who had him schooled in the countryside. His father died in an industrial accident, however, when Wang was fourteen, and he was prematurely launched into the workforce. The bleak factory setting nurtured his artistic impulses; his coworkers included a number of young aesthetes eager to discuss the place of art in the political and economic uncertainty that followed the death of Mao. Wang’s early aspirations to become a painter or architect leave their trace in his films, which, though rough-hewn and ruggedly shot on handheld digital equipment, often use color, light, space, and framing to exquisite compositional effect. Critics have compared Wang’s occasionally extreme chiaroscuro, achieved by chance or calculation, to the tenebrist style of Caravaggio and his followers. A spontaneous…

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