Looking and Listening

in 12th Vladivostok Pacific Meridian International Film Festival

by Clarence Tsui

Wang Bing has always been an easy filmmaker to talk about. The cheat sheet is short: his films are invariably very long; nothing much happens beyond the quotidian; everything has something to do with China’s traumatic recent past; and – this is perhaps the most important point of it all – he’s not exactly in the good books of the country’s political and economic elite.

It’s nearly inevitable, therefore, that a general discussion of Wang’s films could conveniently veer towards either the form or the circumstances surrounding the productions. The technical details and the back stories tend to overwhelm the texts themselves: so we express astonishment at the mammoth running times of his 2003 debut West of the Tracks (Tiexi Qu), which clock in at eight-and-a-half and 14 hours respectively; we praise the boldness of his austere mise-en-scene, as long takes capture subjects talking, sleeping or just existing in Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007), Crude Oil (Caiyou riji, 2008), or Man with No Name (Wumingzhe/L’homme sans nom , 2009).

And then there’s his reputation of being at odds with those holding the reins of power. What with his self-imposed duty of representing the forgotten and forsaken in China’s social margins, it’s not hard to see China’s political-industrial complex – censors, party cadres, businessmen – snubbing his work and trying to keep them from subverting with the country’s official feel-good  narrative.

This reputation precedes the arrival of Father and Sons: featured as part of different retrospectives of Wang’s work – the first one at Paris’ Centre Pompidou in the spring, and then another (titled “The Stranded Age”) as part of Vladivostok’s Pacific-Meridian International Film Festival – Wang’s latest film about a migrant worker and his two children is an “unfinished project” because the subject’s employers demanded the director to stop the shoot. It seems to fit the narrative easily: here’s Wang caught in yet another run-in with people nonplussed about his exposé about the impoverished working class in China. 

So far, so good, so on and so forth – until one actually watches Father and Sons, that is. There’s nothing much in it really that shapes up as a j’accuse against the market forces exploiting Cai Shihua; one could certainly read much into the stone caster and his children’s grubby living conditions, or the ennui as they while away their time in and out of their shack. In fact, the Cai family actually seems to be Wang’s most contented and well-appointed subjects: in contrast to the desperate rural poor seen in Man with No Name or Three Sisters (San Jimei, 2012), the Cais could at least count on such modern “comforts” as a TV set and even a cellphone – a toy the older son, Yongjin, is seen fiddling with in a (very) long, uninterrupted stretch forming the core of the film.

With Father and Sons, Wang has moved on to another level. In what could be described as a Phase Two of his career, he zooms beyond the vast canvases of his Historical epics, to explore actual human relationships blooming and faltering under the forces of social control.

In terms of narrative, the precursor to Father and Sons is certainly Three Sisters (2012), a film which is about, well, a father and his daughters: unfolding on screen are the travails of a trio of rural young girls coping with an absent migrant-worker father, a mother who had long abandoned them, and later a babysitter the father brought in to take care of the children. There’s a longing for connection, however misguided, ill-fated or out-of-sync; at the end of the film, the youngest sister – quoting from a traditional nursery rhyme – muttered how “happiest is the child with a mother”.

But the new approach in Father and Sons stems from Wang’s next film, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) or in Chinese, Crazy Love (Feng Ai). Set in a mental asylum, the three-hour documentary offers intimate and up-close studies of inmates reacting or resigning to their fate in a caged environment resembling more a high-security jail than a treatment facility. It’s a critique of the Chinese state’s conceptualization of and engagement with mental illness – a living 21st century manifestation of Madness and Civilisation (with the “categorization” of inmates) combined with Discipline and Punishment (with the panoptical structure of the asylum shown on screen) – and also about how families are torn apart by this attempt in maintaining so-called normalcy in society.

Father and Sons takes all this to a new level – even though, at the surface, it seems to be mired in stasis. The film, at 87 minutes, comprises just a handful of shots – and mostly we get to see the older boy, Yongjin, texting and watching television while lazing on the bed. His younger brother Yonggao wanders in and out of the frame, joining him and then leaving; his father is nearly completely absent, bar at the beginning (as a shadow, lurking over the boy), for a few seconds in the middle of the film (squatting alone on the roof, smoking) and at the end (when he comes in, tells the boys off for staying up, and then turning off the light). Indolence prevails; the TV drones on in the background; Yongjin is only spurred into action when his cellphone not-so-gently beeps.

The force at work here is invisible, but a strong and formative one nevertheless. It’s about how individuals, especially young ones encouraged to engage with others – the most important of this being his/the father – in this modern age.

We, as viewers, are never privy to Yongjin’s constant online missives. But its obvious how his main mode of communication – and the ones he’s communicating with – is far from the shed he calls home. In a way, this depiction of Yongjin could very well be Wang’s equivalent of Pedro Costa’s portrayal of his friends from Fontainhas: it’s all about people sitting in rooms, their conversations revealing their psyches and past failures and traumas still haunting them (thus Ventura’s recurrent letter to a loved one, promising a rosy future of 100,000 cigarettes and more). In Father and Sons, the silent Yongjin is talking, but his speech is inaudible; he might be frivolous or frustrated, but the conversation remains unseen, off screen, lost to the ether.

So this is the future, Wang seems to say: while the unhinged seeks and finds warmth and love among their own while kept under lock and key in an asylum, the theoretically sane are fencing themselves off from real human connections with each other. Wang’s observations about this eerie contrast are manifested in what gets spoken in Father and Sons – specifically, what we hear from the forever blaring TV, lines which somehow Wang has left un-subtitled. It’s a misstep: here, the sound is as important as the image in how we are to understand the film.

As if providing a soundtrack to Yongjin’s rite of passage – a “journey” through time made symbolic by the way the room gradually recedes into darkness as the sun sets – the TV spews content which reproduces a vision of the world for the young. We hear the bedlam of an all hyped-up kids’ game show, in which children are called on to ring a hotline for cool prizes. Then, heart-stirring schmaltz, as a child is heard crooning a song with the refrain, “I have love, I have a dream”. Then, it refrains from a soap opera in which two fathers duel for the honor of their families and the well-being of their children. Some minutes later, a voice bellows about the youth’s apathy towards society; and finally, a nature program host talks about the “poor tadpoles” looking for ways to survive on their own.

All the while, Yongjin pays sporadic attention to what’s on screen; it’s telling that he falls asleep, as if on cue, when the serious stuff comes up. But it’s all about how these themes and representations of childhood and blood ties would be drummed into a pre-pubescent boy’s sub consciousness – just as the detached, virtual communication with his unseen friends would affect how he is to interact with real people later on in life. If the media is the message, Yongjin’s diet is basically a mix of artifice and alienation – and a state-endorsed concoction, too, given how China’s army of censors comb through each and every thread of significance emerging in the public sphere.

What’s more interesting is how Yongjin (and his sibling) are seemingly less affected or anguished about political tragedies in the past or poor governance in the present. So it is that they live in squalor because of the endemic exploitation in a country ravaged blind by cronyism and corruption; what is there to care if I could revel in the imaginary pleasure zone trumpeted by television and fostered by Smartphones?

Which leads us, again, to a comparison between Costa and Wang, who once shared the same space with entries in the 2007 omnibus film State of the World: if Costa’s characters mull about their present-day predicaments through letters from the past, then Wang’s subjects basically ignore the past and even the here and now by delving headlong into messages from or for the future. What beckons is a place where sons have scant regard for their fathers – or forefathers, for that matter, as kinship is to be replaced by market forces and melodrama, a set of codes dictated by the state and its financial high priests.
 Edited by Steven Yates