Realism, says Wang, who graduated from the department of photography at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts (魯迅美術學院) and later furthered his cinematographic study at the Beijing Film Academy (北京電影學院), is never his goal.
“Elements like light and characters; some are concrete, some abstract and some allegorical or symbolic. How you combine all these elements in one shot at one fleeting moment defines your ability to see things,” Wang says.
“Film can never be a work of abstract painting. It always relies on realistic images to describe the abstract, to use the concrete to create psychological truth,” he adds.
Like Fengming: a Chinese Memoir, most of Wang’s films are commissioned by art festivals, museums and other cultural institutions abroad. In association with Arte, a Franco-German TV network, Three Sisters, Wang’s latest documentary, delivers an intimate portrait of three young sisters living in gripping poverty in a remote mountain village in Yunnan Province. With their father leaving for the city looking for work and their mother who ran off long ago, the children spend their days collecting dung, herding sheep and doing chores that seem endless.
More accessible than Wang’s previous works, the documentary has many of the director’s signature techniques. As always, the camera is perceived as a familiar part of life that people neither confront nor shy away from. Surprisingly, it only took Wang 12 days to film the children, their relatives and friends.
Wang says that the story of extreme poverty in rural Yunnan also marks a geographic shift in his films from the Yellow River basin, which covers the northern provinces of Shanxi, Henan and Shandong, to the Yangtze River basin, which extends from Qinghai, Anhui, Jiangsu to Shanghai.
“China is vast, and the stories and histories of different regions vary greatly. I made The Ditch because I wanted to tell the story of the Yellow River basin. Important Chinese historical events have taken place there … Chen Kaige (陳凱歌) and Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) have made many films about the area, but I don’t want to tell similar stories. I want to tell the story often omitted in Chinese culture,” the director says. “With the Yangtze River basin, where politics, the economy and people’s everyday life have experienced the most violent changes.”