WANG BING, OR THE SIDELINES OF THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
For anyone who wasn’t there at the time, the year 2003 at the Marseille International Film Fes- tival, it is difficult to explain the magnitude of the impact caused by Wang Bing’s first film (王兵, Xi’an, 1967) on the international circuit. The 550 minutes of West of the Tracks (铁西区, 2003) form a portrait of the languishing industrial complex of Tie Xi—a gigantic universe practically in ruins in the city of Shenyang that went into slow yet unstoppable decline at the end of the last century—through the daily lives of the workers in a frozen, obsolete structure: an epic of survival in a China of great change, midway between the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the moment the country became the second largest world economy, reflected the dark side of the opening up of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ led by Jiang Zemin. It was then that Wang Bing decid- ed to focus on the people whose names would not go down in history, on the silent proletariat masses that greased the wheels of that unsurpassable emerging economy.
In his first feature-length film, Bing established one of the lines of work that he has followed throughout his career: turning the people living on the sidelines of history into the lead charac- ters. The detailed processing of these people’s daily survival is based on two cornerstones: the relationship that the director establishes with the characters over a prolonged period of co-existence, and the advantage of the possibilities afforded by video (this is a digital filmmaker, a master of the audiovisual craft whose work has only appeared this century) for allowing the people who appear in his work to ‘forget’ that they are being filmed.
One of the big names in observational documentary film, Wang Bing’s career is a model of consistency and thoroughness, acknowledged at festivals such as Venice, Locarno, Busan and Yamagata. His films are as long as he—not the market for which they are intended—deems necessary in order to honestly approach the dignity with which many of his compatriots are living (or lived) through the penury: from the pure mendicity of children, youths and the elderly to the new generations exploited in working conditions verging on slavery, delving into historic memory, with impressive collating of testimonies from survivors of the work camps instigated by Mao Zedong’s regime in unforgettable works such as Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (和凤鸣, 2007) or Dead Souls (死靈魂, 2018).