Simple Stories: An Interview with Wang Bing
by Aaron Cutler

Two adolescent boys sit on a small bed watching television; they look down from time to time to play on mobile phones while the machine’s white noise continues. Their father’s shadow appears on the wall as he bids them goodbye before leaving for work and tells them goodnight after the day concludes. The boys stay reclining inside the cluttered hut during the hours that pass in between.

The Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing’s most recent feature-length film, Father and Sons (2014), takes place almost entirely inside the cramped, factory-owned living space that has been given to the worker Cai Shunhua for him and his sons Yongjin and Yonggao to inhabit. Wang’s level gaze stays in the room with the boys over the course of a few days, during which very little seems to happen. It watches them as, in the absence of things to do in the industrial area outside their home, they find ways to pass the time indoors.

Father and Sons grew out of Wang’s earlier feature, Three Sisters (2012), in which the two boys appeared in their native Yunnan Province village in southwestern China (shared by the title characters) several months before their father took them to live with him. The film’s patient, attentive manner of presenting people has belonged to Wang’s filmmaking ever since his debut film, the three-part documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), a depiction of a dying factory district’s residents’ efforts to keep functioning while their homes and jobs vanish. Throughout his films, Wang has worked in close proximity to the people he records, most of whom come from Chinese society’s lower levels. Wang builds his films by studying how they interact with their surroundings over time.

These observational films employ long, steady shots that encourage viewers to adapt to the rhythms of a person’s daily life. A theme that emerges throughout them is the ongoing effort people make to find freedom within material confines. The rural girls in Three Sisters, for instance, have been essentially abandoned by their parents at story’s outset, forcing the ten-year-old Yingying into the position of having to raise her two younger siblings. The camera unobtrusively follows the girls while Yingying leads them in performing chores such as feeding and tending to farm animals and making fire with which to cook potatoes. As time passes and the seasons change, they also roam across wide fields and ease their loneliness by finding moments to play.

’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)—which Wang shot in Yunnan Province in between the makings of Three Sisters and Father and Sons—takes place primarily on one floor of an unnamed mental hospital. The film’s viewpoint shifts among several inmates, some of who have been locked up for more than a decade for reasons that remain unclear. Over and over, isolated men appear sprinting around the floor’s narrow corridors until returning to shared quarters. In many cases, the person’s family has abandoned him, and he lacks and longs for tenderness. Mundane activities such as dressing and undressing oneself, lighting a cigarette, and lying beneath a blanket with another inmate come to seem like peoples’ declarations of their own humanity.

Father and Sons focuses on factory worker Cai Shunhua and his sons Yongjin and Yonggao

Father and Sons focuses on factory worker Cai Shunhua and his sons Yongjin and Yonggao

Wang was born in 1967 (shortly after the start of the Cultural Revolution) and raised in a rural part of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. As a teenager, he took over his deceased father’s job in a construction design firm, where he performed various duties while unsuccessfully aspiring to become an architect. He eventually studied photography at the Lu Xun Arts Academy in Shenyang—a large city close to the Tie Xi district that he would eventually film—then cinema at the Beijing Film Academy. He graduated at a time when inexpensive digital filmmaking tools were becoming readily available, and after trying and failing to gain steady work within the Chinese film and television industry, set out on his own as a documentarian. He has since worked prolifically and won a number of international festival prizes; he has also (like many Chinese independent filmmakers) failed to have his films shown commercially in his homeland, and often struggled to finance his projects.  

In chronicling individual, present-day lives, Wang gives a sense of his country’s recent history. The films rarely delve directly into discussions of government policies, with works such as 2007’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir and 2010’s The Ditch (which recall the fates of victims of the Cultural Revolution through documentary interviewing and fictionalized re-enactments, respectively) proving more exceptions than rules in this regard. Political critiques are instead largely left implicit, and made through Wang’s act of allying himself with people that have been pushed onto his culture’s fringes. The films suggest that China’s transition from Maoism to an assimilation of capitalism has not only failed to improve, but actually worsened the lives of many of its citizens, who survive in spite of it.

The people that Wang records are ones who move him, as evidenced by his willingness to let them guide the films. I interviewed the director at this year’s edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where he had come to present Father and Sons. Annelous Stiggelbout translated his answers from Mandarin Chinese into English.—Aaron Cutler

Cineaste: How did you become a filmmaker?

Wang Bing: I have made Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks and many other films, but I have never really thought of myself as a filmmaker. Often in life you don’t know what you should be doing. For me, making films is a way to avoid wasting my time. Nobody needs me to do anything, so I need to do something for myself. My first film premiered thirteen years ago, when I was thirty-five years old and still had many ideals. But actually, there are many things in life that we want to do and that we never get around to doing.

I don’t think that my films have much to do with my background. I had never planned to do this. For about a decade I worked in a construction design studio and was very interested in architecture, but I was never able to acquire the education necessary to be allowed to design the buildings. I applied for several architecture university programs and was never accepted, so I had to do other tasks. In the end, I decided that it would be easier to get into a good school for cinema than one for architecture. I succeeded in entering university and studied first photography, then cinema.

Wang Bing's first film, the epic-length, three-part documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002)

Wang Bing's first film, the epic-length, three-part documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002)

After I graduated, I had a hard time finding work. In China, to procure work in the film industry you need the right contacts, which I didn’t have. I thought that I would make a documentary for myself, without knowing anything about documentary filmmaking—in university I had only been given fiction films to study and hadn’t thought at all about documentaries. (There are very few classes in Chinese films schools that include documentaries in their curriculums.) So I just filmed however I thought would be good. I filmed however I wanted.

The result was West of the Tracks, which I filmed in a district near the arts university that I had attended in the city of Shenyang. What made the biggest impression on me in that area was the snow. In winter it snowed constantly. In that film there is a lot of snow, and throughout my films, I pay attention to the seasons and their passing. The reason for this is that I don’t want the audience just to see a small part of a person’s life, but rather a person along with his or her background. I tend to film people for quite long periods of time. If you show somebody’s life over a long period, then you come to understand him or her better.

Cineaste: How does filming over long periods impact your storytelling?

Wang: I think that the most interesting thing to do in films is not to create a story—in any case, I’m not the kind of director who sets out to create one. I prefer to look at people. If you look at an interesting person for a while, then you will realize that in that person’s life there is a very interesting story. When I meet someone and his or her story really attracts me, then I decide that I would like to make a film about him or her. When I decide that there’s something really beautiful about that person, and that his or her life really touches me, is the moment when I want to film.

In a person’s life, of course, many big things happen, but the moments of tenderness are what most interest me. The relationships that people have with their family members and with friends are the most important things in their lives. Those relationships are what I want to show. Usually I just film, and then I edit, and then I present the results. My films are often very simple and tell very simple stories. If I lay out a plot structure beforehand, then I will have imprisoned the story. I prefer instead to let it develop and grow outside of my control.

Cineaste: How do you approach the people whose stories you tell?

Wang: The approach I take is very simple, really. I go to a place and meet someone. I suddenly feel that that person is interesting, and from there, my crew and I begin to film. I ask technicians to come work with me when they have time and jobs that don’t pay very well, without really considering their levels of experience. (The pay that I can offer them is so low that I can’t really do so.) I tell them how and where to film, and often I hold the camera myself. I use lightweight digital equipment, so the process of filmmaking becomes a lot easier than it would have been in the past. And I tell very simple stories.

I have found in my work that people at all levels of society are basically the same. They’re all very complicated. I keep my distance from them during the period of filming in order not to disturb them emotionally, or to change any of their moods or habits. At the same time, when I film them, I can’t help but get close because there’s something about them that attracts me and that I really like. So there is always a tension. On the one hand, I don’t want to disturb them; on the other hand, I have my own feelings towards them.

Three Sisters (2012)

Three Sisters (2012)

I can talk about the girls in Three Sisters, whose mother had left them when they were quite small. Their father had gone out to another town to work and left them on their own to live. By the time that I began making the film, Yingying was the oldest of the girls at age ten and had to take care of her two little sisters, Zhenzhen and Fenfen, who were six and four. Although Yingying was young, she was very mature.

When I came by their house and saw them playing in the courtyard for the first time, I saw something in them that made them seem different from other children. Despite my being a stranger, they invited me into their home. They were cooking potatoes over a fire because that was all that they had to eat. The sight of them cooking made a deep impression on me. This made me want to film them, and so I did.

Their father eventually returned to the village for a short time, and then took the two younger girls back to the town where he was working. Only Yingying was left. At first, she didn’t have anyone to play with, then she eventually found two brothers with whom she got along well, especially the older one. They would go into the mountains, play together, herd sheep, and collect manure to burn. They had a lot of freedom. Their life at that point was very simple and innocent, and even romantic in a rural way. These two boys had also impressed me, but the film we were making focused on the girls, and so there was no time to give much attention to them.  

The boys’ mother had also left when they were young, and their father was working elsewhere. The father later came back and took them with him to live. In December of 2012, I was working in the Yunnan Province in southern China, and I passed by their home in order to see them. I felt very bad for them, because it was a rather hopeless situation. When I came into their house, I saw that they shared a tiny bed that was only slightly larger than the table at which I am sitting right now. Three people had to sleep in that bed, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how.

That little bed was the thing that made the deepest impression on me. We didn’t have much money or time to work with the family, so I thought that I would make a piece of video art, rather than a proper film. When I decided that I would make Father and Sons I thought, “Well, I’ll film this father and his two sons and their small bed.” That would be enough. Initially, it was intended to be shown only as an installation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, but after it showed there, several film festivals also invited it to play as a film.

'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) depicts an unnamed mental hospital in Yunnan Province

'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) depicts an unnamed mental hospital in Yunnan Province

Cineaste: How did the making of ’Til Madness Do Us Part coincide with those of Three Sisters and of Father and Sons?

Wang: It actually began in 2002, while I was still editing West of the Tracks. I went to visit a psychiatric hospital in the suburbs of Beijing. When I arrived there, it was very windy and all the doors were open, but I didn’t see any people—just lots of fallen leaves. I walked around until I arrived outside one building, within which I could hear many voices. I entered and looked through a glass door. It was very dark, but I could see skinny people on the other side. I opened the door quietly. The nurse on guard thought that I was a family member of one of the patients, but I said that I was just visiting and asked if I could look around. She saw that I had no bad intentions and let me in.

I talked a bit with the patients, most of whom were very thin and very old. I learned that they had been placed in the hospital in the 1960s and 1970s. Their household registrations had been transferred to the hospital, which meant that they were officially registered as living there and so could not move. They may have been sick, but they still acted like normal people, and they really wanted to make contact and to talk with me. I afterward often went to the hospital, and I asked its directors if I could make a documentary there. They continued to refuse up through 2009, at which point I gave up that plan.

Then, early in 2012, when I was filming Three Sisters in Yunnan, the director of a psychiatric hospital in the area told me that I could film inside his complex. I thought that this was an important opportunity, but we had just shot Three Sisters and I had no budget left. I asked some producers who had previously worked with me if they could find money to finance a new project, and they all said no except for a Japanese producer who gave me twenty thousand American dollars. In January of 2013, I returned to Yunnan to film ’Til Madness Do Us Part.

The hospital staff in Yunnan gave me the freedom to film wherever I wanted, but I didn’t feel very good and had doubts about whether I could do it. If you shoot in a place without knowing anything about it, then your film can easily become very bad. Additionally, we were given only three weeks to film there, and in my opinion that was not enough time. So every day, we worked from seven or eight a.m. until midnight or one a.m. There was no time to relax or to do anything else.

By the end of the first week, it had become clear to me how we should make the film. By the end of the three weeks, though, I still felt like there were some stories that we had not told fully. As our money was almost finished, I had no choice but to return to Beijing. I stayed there for a month, and then eventually returned to the hospital and shot for another week, which allowed me to wrap up the film.

I wanted to emphasize, both in the filming and in the editing, things that I had wondered while spending time with psychiatric patients. How had they gotten their illnesses? What did their illnesses do and mean? How did the people feel? How can you separate a person from his or her illness?

'Til Madness Do Us Part

'Til Madness Do Us Part

A problem of psychiatric hospitals is that the patients are basically cast out by society and by their families. Nobody really cares about whether they can recover from what they have. Of course, there were some cases in that hospital where you didn’t know if a person was actually ill at all, but had still been locked up. Some people are in there because they have mental illnesses, and some people have something else going on. Most of the men were in there because they had moved from their villages to urban locations in order to work and had had mental collapses as a result of doing so. Most of the women had been diagnosed and interned after having had babies under China’s family planning policy. The patients have very complicated histories and backgrounds, and every day they are just in there, completely separate from the rest of the world.

Cineaste: What do you think about the direction in which Chinese society is heading?

Wang: Throughout China these days, the family unit is less stable than it used to be. Partly for economic reasons, there are many more broken homes now than there were in the past. Many people don’t have complete families or fixed places to call home. Their lives are much more unstable than before and are much more floating now.

It’s very difficult to say in which direction China is developing. It’s not that I don’t want to say. It’s that it’s really, really hard to say. Of course, what I can offer is completely my own opinion. It doesn’t count for more than that. I think that China is changing very little right now, especially in its politics. In places like the former Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe, for example, many things have changed over the past twenty years, but in China during this same time I think that very little has changed.

The reason why change is happening so slowly, I think, is that the people who want China to change don’t represent the ideas and thoughts of the majority of the population. Most Chinese people don’t know what the future will be, their own or that of China, because they just haven’t developed any opinions about it. Some people at the higher levels of society have done so, such as intellectuals and some businesspeople, but people like those I film—who don’t have much education, who don’t have any money, and who live very poor lives—think differently. So I don’t believe that there will be much change in my country.

Cineaste: Do you have a goal in mind when you begin making your films?

Wang: No. When I see something that really interests me, I simply go and record it. I shot many films at the same time and none of them are finished yet. For example, I met a woman and was filming her. Next to her was sitting another woman who I felt was a really interesting character, and even while I was filming the first woman, I felt the story gradually moving towards the second. Her husband was clearly beating her, but she hadn’t left, even though there was no hope for her family. Through her story, you can see problems facing people at the lowest levels of Chinese society. They’re not secure in their marriages and family lives. They lack direction. They exist only in a state of worry.

I think that stories like hers are good stories to film. In the story of such a real person, you can see something true. I don’t like stories that are overly designed or made up. I think that a story should not be limited in the way that it grows and in how it develops. That is the way I think that movies should be made.

Cineaste: You have made one fiction feature—The Ditch. Do you believe you will return to fiction?

Wang: A big difficulty I face in making fiction films is that I don’t have freedom—no freedom in different aspects, from political to financial. I can’t make fiction films right now and don’t really want to, so I make documentaries to pass the time instead.

Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL No.4 2015