Director: Wang Bing,
Watched on: Amazon Prime Video,
I’ve only seen one documentary by the Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing. His movies are difficult to find, and at lengths running several hours long, can be forbidding for even the most committed of viewers. When I attempted to watch Part One of his series, West of the Tracks (more than 10 hours long in its entirety), on Kanopy, I was stymied by a poor streaming signal. But in the few minutes I did see, there was evidence of why his movies run so long: he was reluctant to turn off his camera.
This uncompromisingly pure form of cinema verité was not, thankfully, the stylistic anchor of the film I have managed to watch, Three Sisters (2012), which takes place in Yunnan province, in the village of Xiyangtang, and runs a more inviting 2 hours, 33 minutes. The film is about three young girls and their father, who must leave the girls alone, to be cared for by neighbors and an aunt, while he looks for work in the city. The mother long ago abandoned the family.
What is most obvious to Western eyes is how poor everyone is. The father and the oldest girl, Yingying, tend the sheep and then, after he leaves, we see Yingying collecting piles of dung, stacking them in a crude backpack, and trundling back to a collection of concrete huts that form the ramshackle center of the village. Her face and clothes seem to be eternally dirty. She and many of the adults are in poor health, affected by everything from the smoky cooking fires to the cigarettes to the weather. It’s the kind of atmosphere which seems to be always damp, chilly, and unrelentingly grim. When a conversation takes place about the villagers facing increasing costs of their health care, you wonder when any of them last saw a doctor.
An American filmmaker may be tempted by the poverty porn of the milieu, and they may be incentivized by a major funder to emphasize the social justice angle in the goings on (why the increased cost of health insurance? why aren’t these children in school?). But Wang isn’t interested in that. His camera may seem like it’s merely recording, a fly on the mud-caked wall, but this is direct cinema with an exhilarating gaze. He stays close to his subjects, often just behind their shoulders. Since the diminutive Yingying emerges as his main character, Wang is shooting from his own waist level, often in a wide angle. This has the effect of framing the girl and others against an expansive backdrop of cloud-flecked blue sky or rock-strewn fields or foggy dirt roads; rugged, wondrous landscapes that are in dramatic contrast to the grinding circumstances of life. She walks and works and feeds the pig and Wang follows. His insistence on never intruding creates a kind of existential question mark about Yingying. The vital fresh air and physical exercise may be what keeps Yingying alive, but what keeps her heart and soul intact?
The interiors are equally entrancing. Often a fire in the room grabs our attention and splashes warm light on the ruddy faces. The noise of cooking and conversation, the ever-present exhalation of cigarette smoke, the sounds of squawking chickens. Everyone seems to be in each other’s eyesight, yet living alone with their own thoughts.
This is a film full of entrancing mysteries that you don’t really need to be solved. After it ends, you may find yourself aware of every sound you hear, every move you make, every brief breeze. Three Sisters is rough and beautiful, the simplest of poems.