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In a rare gesture of open adoration, Wang plants his camera at an upward angle as Yingying sits on the edge of a hill, her figure framed against a startling blue sky.However briefly, she is empress of this inhospitable domain.Wang’s durational extremes do not just carry with them the weight of history and the inertia of the present; they also suggest that we as viewers might repay the gift of his subjects’ nakedness with our own sustained submission. And the aim is to make us earn, as if such a thing were possible, the right to lay eyes on humiliations that are at once collectively borne and unbearably private.In accordance with the material at hand, his temporal effects vary: in a film like West of the Tracks, where the inevitable shuttering of factories has grave implications for an entire community’s livelihood, we experience time as something to be staved off, while in Madness, the minutes collect as in a pool of standing water. Due in no small part to the children at its center, the exquisite Three Sisters (12)—made shortly before Madness—showcases a more tenderhearted Wang, for whom time is not so much a burden to be shouldered as an offering of silent solidarity.That the intimidating length of West of the Tracks seemed commensurate with the nation’s unwieldiness as a subject obscured the obvious question of why any viewer would sign on to be held captive by such a mercilessly prolonged vision of industrial decay.In the context of the past decade of China’s New Documentary Movement—an amorphous renaissance that, enabled by the widening availability of cheap digital cameras, has produced such masterful (and comparatively compact) protest films as Zhao Liang’s Petition, Huang Weikai’s Disorder, and Du Haibin’s 1428 (all from 2009)—Wang’s preeminence has become much easier to scrutinize.When Wang arrived on the international festival circuit in 2002 with Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, a nine-hour portrait of three declining state-owned factories in northeast China, his voracious documentation felt like the ideal redress to the scarcity of art cinema grappling with China’s modern-day predicament.Here was a director intent on swallowing reality whole, whose tireless focus on life on the lowest rungs of the social ladder counteracted both the melodramatic excesses of Fifth Generation auteurs like Zhang Yimou and the propagandism of most Chinese nonfiction filmmaking up to that point.
Set in a mental institution in a remote part of Yunnan province, where Wang was granted permission to shoot for two and a half months, this four-hour odyssey brings near-microscopic attention to a slow drip of chaos, making each shot land like a new round of punishment.
Just as challenging to endure is the degree to which his eye seems inured to and undaunted by the rugged facts of ugliness, which emerge both as a feature of the unforgiving landscapes he favors and as an aesthetic tool with its own ambiguous moral force.