In an abandoned factory, a scavenger rummages through piles of junk, digging out worker IDs and faded slogans, among other worthless things. Nearby, inhabitants of a destitute neighborhood eke out a living by finding and selling scrap iron, planks of wood and other reusable waste, while the threat of demolition looms over the entire community.
These are the everyday scenes that Chinese director Wang Bing (王兵) captures in Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (鐵西區), a meticulously crafted epic documentary about the slow demise of a factory town in China’s northeastern city of Shenyang. Upon its debut at international film festivals in 2003, the nine-hour trilogy immediately garnered high critical acclaim, and in the following decade, Wang has grown to become a leading figure of Chinese independent film, with an ever-expanding oeuvre that contains Fengming: a Chinese Memoir (和鳳鳴, 2007), a formally daring first-person narration of the worst of Maoist China, and Venice-winning Three Sisters (三姊妹), which follows the impoverished lives of three girls in a mountainous village in Yunnan.
Wang was in Taipei earlier this month to attend the Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節), which screened several of his works. Intellectually lucid and outspoken, Wang shared his thoughts on cinema and his experiences as an independent filmmaker in China. Working exclusively in digital format and outside the film industry, Wang says his works are mostly circulated within his country through pirated DVDs, with no chance of distribution.
“I don’t know who sees my work or how they respond to it. I no longer think of these questions. What matters to me is to be able to make films,” Wang says.
Emergence of a digital auteur
In 1999, Wang entered the Teixi District of Shenyang, China’s largest industrial base. With nothing but a small rented DV camera, he started to film the region’s complexes of factories and railways, and the people who worked and lived in the area. He didn’t have enough money to buy DV tapes, which cost the equivalent of NT$400 each. “I used one tape a day. Back then, my monthly living expenses were 300 yuan (NT$1,500),” the 45-year-old director recalls.
He continued filming for 18 months.
The end result is an intimate masterpiece chronicling the area’s transformation from a major industrial hub made up of several hundred factories that employed over a million workers during the heyday of Chinese communism, to the crumbling ruins as China transitioned from a planned to a semi-market economy. The viewer comes to understand that human suffering is the price of progress.
While critics often laud the trilogy for capturing and preserving a rapidly vanishing world, Wang attributes much of its international success to its exploration of digital filmmaking rather than its content.
“The story I chose, its enormity and the way it was shot, has the characteristics of digital cinema. The relation between digital filmmaking and people’s lives and how they unfold are different from traditional filmmaking,” he notes. “It just so happens that during the time I made this film, cinema had undergone the change from celluloid to digital.”
Using a handheld camera, Wang moves spontaneously with the inhabitants through their neighborhood, following people who happen to walk into his frame. Sometimes, the camera appears to be a plain object placed among household utensils. Indeed, the people Wang films feel so much at ease in front of the camera, they do not hesitate to bath naked in front of it.