Directed by Wang Bing
Golden Leopard, 2017 Locarno Film Festival
Official Selection, 2017 Toronto International Film Festival
When Wang Bing’s latest documentary begins, Mrs. Fang is sick but on her feet. Soon though she is bedridden. Around her lurch family members going about their days, eating, yakking, preparing the funeral of the elderly woman while she lays at the edges of the frame, as inanimate as the refrigerator by her feet. While they talk about Mrs. Fang as if she were already gone, Wang Bing (Ta’ang, SDAFF 2016) does something he rarely does: he cuts in for a close-up. Mrs. Fang’s eyes are locked open, as if seeing death waiting patiently in her room. Her teeth jet out, reminders of the bones beneath her shriveled flesh. She is not gone. In close-up, we feel her breath, her eyes zap us with the final flickers of life. Locked in on her face, our eyes are connected and our consciences inflamed. Compassion can be suffocating. So can voyeurism.
This is documentary at its most uncompromising and fundamental: what is the experience of watching a human pass away? Who are we to observe the most private gesture of consciousness, the succumbing to finality? It’s easy to blame the family for ignoring or being insensitive to their matriarch; it’s much harder to look at her ourselves, and Wang Bing holds us to that ethical proposition. Between deathbed close-ups, Wang Bing takes us outside to shots of fishing, other merciless views of humankind and death that contextualize Mrs. Fang’s final days in the economy, ecology, and eternal spirit of the community. But never does Mrs. Fang’s face leave our memories. Nor will it, well beyond the 86 minutes of the film. It is an image as elemental and iconic of cinema as has ever been filmed. –Brian Hu