The Chinese Wang Bing and Filipino Lav Diaz, two celebrated filmmakers and spearheads of the ‘minimalist’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘slow’ cinema movement, have in their work continuously straddled the line between documentary and fiction, their films closely tied to the places they depict/narrate. Occasionally turning to fiction, as in his docudrama contribution to the omnibus film The State of the World (2007) and in The Ditch (2010), a harrowing story about a Maoist era forced-labor camp in the Gobi desert that is the feature-length ‘outgrowth’ of his documentary portrait of a labor camp survivor, Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (2007), Wang has always been interested in the relation between truth and storytelling. Former reporter Lav Diaz, whose first film was a short 16mm documentary on Filipino street kids, has recently returned to the documentary form with Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011) and An Investiogation on the Night That Won’t Forget (2012), but has occupied the border zone between fiction and non-fiction since his first epic of real-time observational cinema, the almost ten-hour-long Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) (on this film and Diaz’s work in general see Michael Guarneri’s excellent piece for Photogénie issue 2, “Everyday Struggle, Struggle Every Day”). He started his major work Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) as a documentary about the aftermath of the typhoon that had swept away the Filipino village of Bicol, the setting of two earlier films, then added fictional elements (actors, story, metaphor) because he wanted ‘greater discourse,’ allegory for both the political reality of his country and the human condition in general. Both Wang’s and Diaz’s cinemas have been qualified as at once objectively distanced and highly immersive, qualities that also apply to their two most recent films, Wang’s Father and Sons and Diaz’s The Storm Children: Book One, both nominally documentaries that screened at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival.
As so often in Wang’s work, Father and Sons (Fu Yu Zi) was the direct result of a fortuitous encounter, in this case with stonemason Cai Shunhua and his teenage sons Yongjin and Yonggao during one of the Shaanxi native’s regular trips to the ethnically diverse, poverty-stricken Yunnan Province, where both Three Sisters (2012) and Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) were shot. The film zeroes in on the four-square-meter hut where Cai lives with his sons and their dogs, or rather, where they live their separate lives since Cai works at night and sleeps during the day. Most of the film’s running time is taken up by a single fixed shot of elder son Yongjin lying on the makeshift bed, drinking tea, playing with the dogs, but mostly texting or playing around with his cellphone, while the television drones on in the background out-of-frame. This isn’t the only shot in the film. It starts with a beautiful image of the father’s shadow cast from offscreen onto the bed where his sons are watching TV as dad is getting ready to go to work (a set-up Wang returns to for the final scene), and there is an equally expressive composition of Cai outside the house, lost in thought and framed from the back against the ‘Development Zone’ of a relatively undeveloped region of China.
But most of the time we’re with Yongjin in that hut, on that bed. As per usual in Wang’s films, the relatively distanced framing only contributes to the immersive potential of the image, the sense of being there with these people in that space, the result not only of Wang’s practice to spend a huge amount of time with his subjects, gaining their trust, becoming ‘invisible,’ part of the space and the daily routines that take place there (although there is the occasional shyly enquiring glance to see if the static camera is still on), but also of both the film’s and the individual shot’s extended running time. Despite the overall sense of familiarity, of being in a Wang Bing film, I also felt something was different this time, somehow off. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something vital was missing, and that instead of another of Wang’s socially and emotionally rich encounters with China’s underprivileged classes, we were getting a more sterile exercise in quasi-Warholian duration. A Wang Bing film, despite this one’s short running time of 87 minutes, has never felt this long. At the same time the film seemed unfinished, not only because of its – for Wang – short running time, but mainly because what is there of the world to be seen is, in the end, so very little when compared to the rich tapestries of Tie Xi Qu - West of the Tracks (2003 – a nine-hour masterpiece on the decline of Chinese socialist economy as experienced by the workers of Shenyang’s industrial Tiexi district) and Til Madness Do Us Part (a four-hour chronicle of a provincial municipal asylum). The impression that the film was a truncated or unfinished version was eventually confirmed by a concluding title that informs us filming had to be stopped because Cai’s landlord and employer did not want a film crew snooping around his property (the title reads: ‘We began filming their life on February 2nd 2014. On the morning of the 6th, we received threats from the boss and had to stop filming’). The resulting frustration is eloquently captured by Michael Guarneri writing for Notebook:
There simply wasn't enough time for Father and Sons to grow and come into being: possibly not enough time for the three protagonists to overcome the initial awkwardness and shyness one instinctively feels in front of a camera, and most certainly not enough time for Wang to closely observe their everyday routine and record it in minute detail. Hence, there wasn't enough filmed material to work on in the editing phase in order to provide the spectators with a comprehensive cinematic reconstruction of the real life of all three family members. The result is that, contrary to the "usual" Wang documentary film, we are locked out of the inner world of the protagonists and we are simply left to contemplate a taciturn kid hanging around in his hut, mostly in bed.
An additional ‘problem’ has to do with the way the film’s central image invites us to read it. As in Warhol, the general sense we get is of a nihilistic kind of ennui, of a lethargy and aimlessness engendered by contemporary China’s weirdly contradictory variation on ‘no future.’ We observe while Cai’s son does nothing; even some fans of the film have commented that the dogs seem to have more of a life than the people. But is Yongjin really doing nothing, a serious case of suspended animation? You could say that he is fully engaged, his inner world firing on all cylinders, but that we cannot access that world because cinema has yet to come up with a convincing way to capture the modern teenager’s most important pastime: texting (going the House of Cards route and showing texts onscreen is simply not on the menu for Wang). Who knows what drama (or comedy) is flashing back and forth between this cellphone and other screens unseen! And then there is another off-screen space that belies the image’s purported content of stasis, one rudely ignored by the programmers of the Rotterdam Film Festival. In fact, Father and Sons is not only a truncated film, it is but one half of an installation piece that was first unveiled at the retrospective devoted to the director’s work – both film and installation – at the Centre Pompidou in April-May 2014. This is important for two reasons: the first one is that a film that is already incomplete becomes more so without the series of photographs that accompany it showing Yongjin and Yonggao passing time during the day. As Guido Pelligrini observes in his review of the show for Slant:
These frozen moments were paradoxically more dynamic and lively, more mobile, than the installation that shared its name and subject matter. Now the boys could be seen throwing rocks into the distance, on a hill overlooking nearly identical towers; or standing on a tree holding toy guns, the sunlight almost blurring their figures into silhouettes; or sitting on the aforementioned bed, involved with their cell phones or handheld devices. Viewers, who don't expect animation from a photograph, can imagine the action—the whole drama of movement before and after the captured instant, the rocks lifted from the earth, thrown into the horizon, finally making their way back to the ground after completing their downward arcs.
The installation is constructed around a dialectic between static and moving image, between childish play and everyday monotony, between the feeling of being fully alive and a social reality of both economic promise and a concrete loss of opportunity. Without this dialectic the film as a stand-alone work becomes virtually meaningless, an oddly subdued exercise in waiting, in anticipation of a Straub-like epiphany that never really occurs (unless you count the moment when the light is suddenly turned on as dusk is fallen, making you feel acutely aware of time having passed). Pelligrini also points to the different temporal experience of a film seen inside a cinema and one experienced in a gallery: ‘Inside a cinema…duration is something to endure, while in a gallery, the projection can be abandoned and returned to later. This deemphasizes the fact of duration, since it's no longer necessary to endure it, and foregrounds more architectural elements, as the moving image becomes part of the space that contains it.’ As it screened in Rotterdam, Father and Sons does become a feat of endurance, a fact emphasized by the film’s abysmal showing in the audience poll (it ranked last). Even Warhol did not expect viewers to actually sit through his marathon films; ideally viewers would take an occasional look to see them change and unfold as they then went on with their own lives.
Dispositifs and Strategic Points
Wang’s move to the gallery is part of a general tendency amongst practitioners of minimalist or slow cinema – like Tsai Ming-liang, Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, Agnès Varda and Abbas Kiarostami before them) – to trade in traditional forms of dramaturgy, the conception of film as a récit linearly unfolding in time, for what Adrian Martin (with Luc Moullet) has called a ‘dispositif’ (see the chapter on “The Rise of the Dispositif” inAdrian’s magnificent new book, Mise en Scène and Film Style, which I’ll write about in my next blog). The dispositif in Martin and Moullet’s conception, not to be confused with the term often jumbled together with ‘apparatus’ in 1970s film theory, is centrally a ‘conceit,’ a ‘disposition’ that puts the focus squarely on the structures or parameters of a film, on the arrangement of its elements (David Bordwell’s conception of ‘parametric narration’ – see my “Order and the Ordinary” on Photogénie - is certainly related to this conception, as is, more generally, the conceits or principles behind structural cinema). The dispositif film – both as gallery installation and cinema film – is not by definition in contradiction to social, emotional or psychological meaning, but it does feel odd to so qualify a work by a humanist filmmaker like Wang Bing. And yet Father and Sons, presented by Wang asa ‘visual and aural study of the family’s space,’ is truly a dispositif film, and that is also probably what bothers me about it.
When I teach Wang’s films I try to take care to stress the meticulous attention the filmmaker pays, in what at first glance appear to be fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, cinéma vérité reinvented to capture a new kind of social and political reality, to framing and image composition. Especially in his later films, Wang has managed to combine or balance his humanist perspective, his attention to the particulars of environment and behavior, with the attempt to transform setting into a richly textured and aesthetically layered composition in ways that recall both Kiarostami and some of Wang’s colleagues in the New Chinese and Taiwanese Cinemas, particularly Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke. To take an example from the latter’s ‘documentary’ 24 City (2008), a shot showing a former employee of a state-owned factory in Chengdu now working as a hairdresser interviewed on camera, not only achieves a rich dialectic between fact and fiction, documentary and (melo)drama (the former factory worker is played by Joan Chen because the real person was said by her co-workers to resemble the star of Zhang Zheng’s 1978 classic Little Flower), but an agreement between clear but unemphatic choices of framing and mise en scène – the shot is angled so Chen is ‘doubled’ in the hairdressing mirror; the bright, ‘girly’ colors that lighten the drab interior – and attention to telling background detail that speaks volumes about this woman and her world.
I was especially pleased when during his ‘master class’ at the occasion of his recent visit to CINEMATEK Wang talked at length about how images from the films of Tarkovsky and Antonioni are always on his mind when he is looking for the right and most interesting way to frame, a shot-consciousness fully on display in the ‘surprise film’ Wang had brought with him, the rough cut of another installation piece co-produced by CINEMATEK, Mi Niang. This film about a ‘bought’ bride from Laos who works on a Chinese farm, uncovers a virtually unending chain of aesthetic epiphanies in people watching TV (in more fixed-camera framings) and especially in the daily routine of farmer and wife sapping rubber trees that takes up the film’s latter part, captured in Wang’s trademark handheld tracking shots that follow the people wherever they go, without (as in most post-Dardennes cinema) getting too close and forgetting about the world that surrounds them.
Despite this acknowledged influence from Tarkovsky and Antonioni, the model for Wang’s framing in Father and Sons and – in the first part only – Mi Niang,seems to be Straub-Huillet, specifically Antigone era Straub-Huillet (a 99 minute film taken from a single camera position) when their idea of the ‘strategic point,’ the position from which all the action of the scene can be recorded, took central stage (Thom Andersen’s account in CinemaScope of the ‘strategic point’ in Wang and the challenge of clearly rendering what Caroline Champetier has called the frame’s ‘lines of force’ in a cramped environment can be found here). For the Straubs the ‘reality of a space’ is essential, as is the filmmaker’s task to preserve that reality through finding the appropriate vantage point instead of jumping from shot to shot and composing frames that are not connected in relation to a space. This is essentially the Straubian version of John Ford’s professed talent for finding the right place where to put the camera, privileging a static, eye-level position that allows the actors to come to the camera instead of the other way around.
But in Father and Sons this principle of simplification seems to have clashed with the Antonionian-pictorial part of Wang’s sensibility, with the color-coded match-up between the red and blue of the boy’s clothes and the bags hanging from the wall or the thermos and plastic container resting on the ground, beautiful for sure in the brownish tones and crisp definition of Wang’s digital cinematography, but seeming to draw more attention than the human in the frame or the frame’s spatial integrity. The image seems more than slightly overcomposed, too balanced and emphatic, dare we say too academic, so it comes almost as a relief when a ‘sloppy’ but still Straubian cut on the axis disrupts it halfway through. Now I would have written off my beef with the slightly mannerist aspects of Wang’s film as a direct result of its troubled production history and ambiguous exhibition status, had not a similar case of aesthetic overemphasis appeared in Lav Diaz’s The Storm Children: Book One, another auteur-documentary in the Rotterdam line-up and another film that manages to come across as at the same time overstudied and rushed, rough cut and highly conceptualized and formalist dispositif film.
Orphans of the Storm
Storm Children shows the ravished landscape of Tacloban, a highly urbanized Filipino city that was hit hard by typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded that reached the Philippines in November 2013. The film’s subtitle (Book One) stresses the fact that battling the effects of global warming is a daily routine in the Philippines, an island country where the rainy season lasts from June to December and tropical storms are a regular occurrence (the film is also rumored to be the first installment in a series of fourteen!). Devastated towns and cities and their displaced families feature prominently in Diaz’s films, from the town of Bicol hit by typhoon Durian (locally known as ‘Reming’) in Death in the Land of Encantos to the deluged barrio in the Maguindanao province that is the setting of his most recent fiction film, From What is Before (2014). Like Wang, Diaz focuses primarily on the people history has left behind, a social dynamic of dispossession seemingly allegorized by the effects of crazy weather. In Storm Children, as in Father and Sons, children either homeless or living in shanties stand as a silent accusation against the forces that have condemned them, forces that are at least as much social, political and economic as natural. Diaz shows these kids fishing flotsam from sewer overflow, digging through rubbish and scattered debris on the beach and swimming next to stranded freight ships, and it’s hard not to think of the teenagers in Wang’s West of the Tracks scavenging rail yards and villages for scrap metal to sell (Michael Guarneri is certainly right to point out that these films are at least partly about microeconomics). His black and white images are at once sparse and beautiful, harking back to the static, distant framings typical of his style that were rendered somewhat less austere in his last two fiction films that featured more Antonioni-Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr-like camera movement. The style of the New York Photo League of the thirties and forties is also never far away. And then there’s Diaz’s predilection for the long take, for letting the image settle for the time it takes the viewer to take in the place and the people. As in Wang, the imposing running time (Storm Children’s two-hour-and-twenty-three-minutes is a short compared to Diaz’s usual six to nine-hours)is closely correlated to the ethical imperative to allot screen time to people who are usually pushed to the margins of history and its image cultures.
Et la vie continue…
Diaz’s strong affection for these people, for these children, many of whom are his friends, is clear from every frame, but there is a moment in the film, when the children just keep on going through the same garbage pile, systematically unearthing layers of debris while Diaz detachedly looks on, when both ethical and aesthetic imperative start to feel strained and the thematic motif of Sisyphean endurance gives way to pure dispositivism. Compared to a film like Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More… (1991), another story about the effects of a natural disaster – the 1990 Majil-Rudbar earthquake in the North of Iran – and the stoic endurance of the local people, Diaz’s aesthetic ideas also appear somewhat undernourished: beautiful images in Kiarostami, created by cleaning up, beautifying the disaster area, are acknowledged to be a lie through creating fiction/documentary hybrids, but a lie that is necessary in order to avoid the easy response of miserabilism; unless there’s something I’m missing, in Diaz the beauty of the images, their distanced allure, never really connects with the film’s raison d’être. Why, for instance, was the film shot in black and white? Why the severe ninety-degree angle changes in the film’s first half, that only strengthen the impression of a formalist economy, and clash quite violently – like the balanced compositions themselves – with the sloppy jump cuts scattered throughout the film, at once the result of the astounding amount of film Diaz has handled (as director, editor, cinematographer) not only for this film but during the last decade, and an indication of another, more sketch-like aesthetic trying to get through. Let’s be clear: while Kiarostami and Diaz share the idea of letting a place inform the idea and final form of a film, their approach is fundamentally different: the difference is that Kiarostami visits a place, goes back to Teheran, and then comes back to shoot with a very precise plan in mind; contrary to this more ‘intellectual’ approach, Diaz’s method is what he himself likes to call ‘organic,’ going to the place without much preparation, staying there for a long time and then letting the landscape, the people and their daily routine inform the film he writes on a day-to-day basis. The problem is that the sense of the film as a living and breathing organism, living and breathing together with those whose lives it narrates, becomes moot once it is subjected to a rigorous aesthetic program: everything is alive and changes, in a permanent state of flux, everything but the filmmaker’s shot choices.
Circles and Squares
Manny Farber once summarized the art cinema of the seventies, a cinema very much present in both Wang’s and Diaz’s films, as two types of structure: dispersal and shallow-boxed space. Dispersal (exemplified by the films of Jacques Rivette, who was of course influenced by Rossellini) stands for the ‘uncircled’ open frame, for the idea of ‘keeping the freshness and energy of a real world within the movie’s frame.’ The shallow-boxed space (exemplified by structural cinema, Straub-Huillet and Chantal Akerman) is ‘squared to the edges of the frame,’ ‘the formal-abstract-intellectualized content signifying a filmmaker who has intellectually surrounded the material.’ In rare cases – Straub-Huillet, the Akerman of Jeanne Dielman – this type of ‘very hard presentation of minimal visual information’ manages to create both ‘a feeling of cement blocks and extraordinary poetry.’ What Wang and Diaz have attempted to do in their most recent films is to harmonize the two structures: the two filmmakers at the same time want to keep things open, ‘uncircled’ - if only because the films are by necessity only part, one chapter of a much broader story -, keeping their distance to allow reality to seep through, and to formalize the films according to an abstract aesthetic or intellectual schema. This is not impossible: Kiarostami has done it in most of his films from the nineties, the Straubs and Pedro Costa in some of theirs. But none of these films were documentaries: in Wang and Diaz the documentarian’s respect for his subjects clearly clashes with this encirclement.
While the Diaz film died for me as these questions kept going through my mind and those kids kept going through that rubbish pile, it came triumphantly back to life in its final third, when a more traditional documentary approach took over and the rigid framings ceded to a looser, handheld approach, as Diaz follows his youthful guides through a tour of a shantytown along the coastline (‘as if the desire to discover and record reality in its unfolding gained absolute priority over formal issues of pictorial composition and framing,’ writes Michael Guarneri). Life, and Nothing More… began to resonate in a more positive way as Diaz listens to one of the kids tell the story, sad grin on his face, of how his buddy sitting next to him lost his home and everybody and everything in it when one of those big cargo ships they like to swim around or, in the movie’s poetic slow-motion closing scene straight out of a Rudy Burckhardt film, dive off from, went straight through it. In another unforgettable moment, while the tour continues, a group of young girls can be seen and heard singing Disney anthem “Let It Go” in a moment that feels neither thematized nor, as with the TV broadcast of the World Cup in the Kiarostami film, pointed at as yet another instance of globalization.
Goodbye to Language
The turn to the interview approach and more traditional vérité tactics also made me realize that what had made me respond so negatively to those composed images in Wang and Diaz, images I have greatly admired in many of their other films, had to do with language, with the absence of language, an effect that strikes me as completely at odds with the conception of these films. Father and Sons starts with the father saying something like, ‘Turn the TV off, time for bed,’ and then goes silent for a really long time (if we discount the constant chatter of the talk and game shows), until the younger brother turns up for a chat and the father eventually returns to repeat ‘Turn, the TV off, time for bed.’ In what seems to me like a fundamental decision, Wang chose not to subtitle either the talk coming from the TV or the conversation between the brothers, making ‘Turn the TV off’ essentially the only line of dialogue in the film. Wang had similarly made the decision not to subtitle the minimal dialogue of Crude Oil, his previous mammoth installation piece, in order to intensify sound and texture. In The Storm Children dialogue disappears from the film after the first audible and subtitled conversation of a boy swearing at an off-screen man, until the moment of the switch to the interview format. In both cases, I would argue that the forced disavowal of language – not on any ideological or psychological grounds that I can identify, but merely as part of a formal dispositif – clashes with the nature of a cinema that is at once textural and tactile and experiential and humanistic and social and conversational, relying as much on talk as on atmospheric sound. Imagine taking talk out of the equation in West of the Tracks, a movie so expressive about the comfort found in everyday banter, or, indeed, in Fengming, as powerful a testimony to the workings of language and storytelling as I’ve ever seen (or heard) that is, despite a similar static framing strategy held for most of its three-hour playing time, exceedingly cinematic. Here’s hoping these first chapters are indeed not the end but merely the exploratory preamble to a much richer story that will no doubt restore my faith in the ability of these filmmakers to show us life fully coming into being, words and all.
Tom Paulus teaches film studies in the department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Antwerp. He has published on issues of genre and film style in such journals as Film International. His essays on pictorial style in the films of John Ford were published in three edited collections, John Ford in Focus (Stoehr & Connolly eds.) from McFarland, Westerns: Movies from Hollywood and Paperback Westerns (Paul Varner ed.) from Cambridge Scholars Press, and New Perspectives on The Quiet Man from the Liffey Press. His edited collection (with Rob King) Slapstick Symposium: Essays on Silent Comedy was published by Routledge in the American Film Institute Film Readers series.