When two worlds collide: Wang Bing in and out of context by Andrew Latimer
AV Festival has become the envy of many arthouse cinemas and film festivals this year with its ‘reel’ insight into the work of Wang Bing. The director’s epic West of the Tracks slowly unravelled the themes of economic decline and alienation in Northeast China to serve as a concentrated yet perceptible introduction for many cinema-goers to his work.
This double bill screening of Wang’s Coal Money and Man With No Name however offers potentially more intricate but elusive accounts of marginalisation in Chinese society. The former is a terse documentary, which pursues convoys of trucks along a stretch of coal road near Shanxi where local traders try to steal, exchange or simply haggle for huge containers of coal that drivers are itching to sell off. As with Wang’s lingering, pedantic camera, he fixates on the arguments of the men who bicker over the tiniest detail: how big a lump of coal is, whether it is actually just black rock and how much money they can save by getting the drivers to unload the coal themselves, rather than pay for additional labour.
Coal Money in all likelihood contains the most dialogue than in any other of Wang’s films; here he is right in the middle of profit and poverty, documenting those who will benefit from corrupt deals and those who will fail the con. Wang shows exactly how much money can be made, where the coal comes from, how side-of-the-road deals lead to conflict, and reveals how success can be found in the dirtiest of materials and transactions. It is a film with as much direct context about the desire to make a profit as any of his more liminal films; here, Wang almost eulogies the preciousness of finite resources, silently observing how a rock can cause such frantic passion and greed.
As if tumbling from the throes of circumstance however, he lands in the middle-of-nowhere in Man With No Name. In an unnamed part of China, Wang spent over a year living with a nomad whose bleak daily routines are captured only by Wang’s camera. There is virtually no dialogue, no interaction, no commentary, practically empty filmmaking, which is still somehow mesmerising. Wang reveals to us the base functions of surviving: this man lives in a cave, spends his days hoeing the earth, collecting stray objects and preparing meals. It’s unclear what presence Wang actually has in his documentaries, but here it is even more exasperated, revealing to us economic and social detachment in their rawest forms. It is a different kind of durational cinema to that of West of the Tracks and Crude Oil, instead travelling past all the avenues to conventional endings and continuing arduously – as his subject does in real-life.
This conversation about narrative in Wang’s films becomes so fascinating in Man With No Name. For the footage we are shown, there must be hundreds of hours of film left out. There is a great mystery to how Wang lives alongside this man, what their relationship is, what happens when the camera is switched off. Here, Wang becomes almost as interesting a character as his subject, despite having no real existence in the film. The many paradoxes in Wang’s work are what have engaged me so much in his catalogue; perhaps the reason they are so visible here is in the masterful selection to screen it as part of a double bill.
Andrew Latimer @ajlatimer