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October 17 - October 25

The Epic and the Everyday – The Films of Wang Bing

Wang Bing is a leading figure of the exciting and unprecedented documentary movement that has been gathering vital momentum within the Chinese cinema over the last decade. Wang’s epic documentaries West of the Tracks, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir and Crude Oil define the brave political outspokenness, tenacity and artistic sophistication that continues to inspire a new and ambitious generation of young Chinese filmmakers. From the vast, nine-hour panorama of a dying factory town meticulously crafted by West of the Tracks to Fengming’s transformation of the Cultural Revolution into a gripping first person narration and Crude Oil’s real time portrait of the grueling fourteen hour working day of oil workers, Wang’s formally daring films offer profound meditations on history and the paradox of the industrial ruin and human suffering caused by the inexorable “progress” of modern China. A different, more dedicated, mode of spectatorship is required and infinitely rewarded by the awesome scale and sheer length of Wang’s features, which treat time as almost a sculptural element, using their intense duration to give a solidity and presence to the crumbling factories, shantytowns and lonely rooms that they explore and cohabit. Forging a rare intimacy with the workers, widows and chronically unemployed whose voices and struggles are made poignantly real within his films, Wang takes the observational ideal championed by cinema verité to a radical and important new level. Using no-frills digital video equipment, Wang creates intensely cinematic films that draw a raw, tragic beauty and power from the world of slow time defined by decaying industrial infrastructure and landscapes imploded by the steady exploitation of their resources. In his latest, shorter documentaries, Happy Valley and Coal Money, Wang has embraced a more essayistic mode of inquiry that condenses the hierarchy of labor and regulated capitalism into stubborn and fascinating riddles. Wang’s contribution to the omnibus film State of the World marks his first foray into fiction filmmaking and points towards his greatly anticipated narrative feature, The Ditch (2010).

The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Wang Bing on the occasion of his first complete U.S. retrospective.

This program is co-presented with Documentary Educational Resources and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Special thanks: Cynthia Close, Documentary Educational Resources; Ying Qian; Jie Li; Lihong Kong, Fairbank Center; Ernst Karel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Film Study Center at Harvard.


Sunday October 17 at 6pm

West of the Tracks, Part I: Rust ( Tie Xi Qu)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2003, digital video, color, 224 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Wang’s astonishing first film is a moving and engrossing chronicle of the slow, sinking death of the factory towns in China’s Northeast Shenyang province as their aging foundries are quietly abandoned by the state and a way of life is extinguished. Armed with only a handheld DV camera, Wang invents remarkable yet understated camera movements and compositions to capture both the grueling factory work and the anxious waiting time that gradually takes over the workers’ lives. Despite its four hour length, Rust somehow remains as gripping from its first to last minute by giving equal space to the vivid dangers of the factory and the quiet moments in the workers’ break rooms – and most notably during a forced hospital retreat – where their fears of unemployment and their suddenly uncertain future begin to cast dark shadows. Rust’s fascination with the choreography of Man and Machine gives way to moments of intense beauty that at times recalls the structural films of sculptor Richard Serra.

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Monday October 18 at 7pm

West of the Tracks, Part II: Remnants ( Tie Xi Qu)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2003, digital video, color, 178 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Shifting its focus to the vast shantytowns that emerged in the shadow of the factories, the second part of Wang’s trilogy offers a multi-generational portrait of a community faced with the sudden terrible certainty of its own demise. As the factories close, the always unseen and off-camera forces of the state abruptly begin to tear down the homes, giving only perfunctory notice to their inhabitants. As a barometer of the unsettling changes, Wang chooses a group of restlessly drifting adolescents whose band is gradually diminished, one-by-one, often times without saying goodbye to their friends. As winter sets in and the dust of the demolished houses mixes with snow a small group of townsfolk bands together to try and resist the cold and the destruction of their homes.

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Friday October 22 at 7pm

Kim Novak and Jack LemmonFengming: A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2007, digital video, color, 186 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

While researching his planned narrative epic about the formative years of Maoist China, Wang encountered He Fengming, a former journalist who began to recount the gripping and almost unbelievably heartrending story of her troubled experiences as a once-ardent member of the socialist movement. Inspired by Fengming’s startling perspective on the dark turns taken by the Cultural Revolution, Wang fashioned an unusually intimate and revealing encounter with the elderly woman using by dramatically linking a series of extended single shots fixed upon Fengming seated within her modest home and speaking directly to the camera and viewer. As the night gradually falls Fengming’s words gather in force to reveal the power of oral history and the strength of this extraordinary woman, which is intensified further by Wang’s deliberate avoidance of stylistic embellishment.

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Sunday October 24 at 7pm

West of the Tracks, Part III: Rails ( Tie Xi Qu)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2003, digital video, color, 132 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

The closing chapter of Wang’s ambitious trilogy is arguably its most poetic and emotionally powerful, a portrait of the last supply trains that continue to deliver ever dwindling quantities of raw stuff to the crumbling factories. Passing through the ruins of abandoned homes and foundries, the conductors reflect with stoic restraint upon the gradual erasure of the world around them. A father-son team of metal scavengers becomes a vivid yet ultimately bleak vision of fragile hope, their daily struggle revealing how very little of value can be extracted from the wasteland left in the name of progress.

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Monday October 25 at 7pm

Coal Money (Tong Dao)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2008, digital video, color, 53 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Wang’s short documentary follows the trail of improvised commerce and hard cash described by a convoy of trucks carrying coal from the mines into the countryside. The hard, even bitter, bargaining and accusations of thievery that erupt at each juncture suggest the free market system to be based on an ever-sliding scale of distrust and insecurity.

Brutality Factory

Directed by Wang Bing.
With Xu Ning, Wu Gang, Wang Hongwei
Portugal 2007, digital video, color, 16 min.

Wang’s first narrative film reenacts one of the notorious “struggle sessions,” extended show trials to test the loyalty and patriotism of individual party members that were among the more disturbing practices during the early years of the Maoist regime. A segment from the omnibus film The State of the World, Wang’s short returns to the lost world of the factories seen in ruins in West of the Tracks while also channeling the story of a victim of socialist zealotry recounted in Fengming.

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October 18 – October 20 in the Fairbank Center

Crude Oil (Caiyou Riji)

Directed by Wang Bing.
China 2008, digital video, color, 840 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Originally intended to be an ambitious seventy hours, Wang’s ultra-epic-length feature uses its fourteen hours to follow the long working day of crude oil extractors in China’s remote eastern Qinghai Province. Crude Oil realizes Cesare Zavattini’s often cited dream of an uncut, unvarnished film about a worker’s daily life, here expanded to include the larger team of laborers who toil and only briefly rest together as well as the haunting almost lunar landscape of the oil fields. In order to intensify the sounds, textures and experience of the oil workers, Wang chose not to subtitle the film’s minimal dialogue and conceived of Crude Oil more as an installation piece, to be shown in gallery or museum settings with the freedom to come and go as one chooses.

We are pleased to present Crude Oil in the CGIS center, together with the Fairbanks Center on October 18 from 9am to 7pm, October 19 from 9am to 5pm and October 20 from 9am to 4pm in the CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Room S030.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700