The Ditch -- Film Review

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VENICE -- The Chinese equivalent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's horror stories from the Russian gulags, "The Ditch" is a heart-wrenching memorial to 1 million Chinese citizens who were caught up in the political purges of the 1950s and deported to forced-labor camps, from which many never returned. In his first fiction work, director Wang Bing brings a documentarian's eye to the inhuman conditions of one of these "re-education" camps in the trackless, windswept Gobi desert, recounting immense tragedy and suffering with emotional restraint.

The film's respectfully distanced treatment of its painful subject points to limited art house release.

The co-production among Hong Kong, France and Belgium was shot on location in secrecy without official authorization. It marks one of the first films to deal directly with a politically taboo subject from the near past, and its righteousness and rigor will make it a beacon for future films on the topic.

Based on true stories recounted by author Yang Xianhui in "Goodbye, Jiabiangou" and on the director's interviews with survivors of the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps, the film uses chilling realism to describe the hunger and back-breaking work that killed most of the supposed "right-wing dissidents" who had the bad luck to be sent there.

Most of the film was shot in simple underground dugouts lined with bedding, where the men sleep after work on a giant desert project that is to cover 10,000 acres. Living on watery soup, many of the exhausted men can hardly stand up. Hostile climate and work conditions vie with the great famine sweeping China to finish them off. Those who die during the night are carted off each morning to be buried in shallow graves in the desert. The prisoners passively wait for death to end their suffering, until one day a young woman appears at the camp, looking for her husband. Her raw anguish forces the men to confront their own repressed despair.

The filmmaking is most powerful as a document of the nightmarish conditions in the camp, where the starving men are led to the extremes of cannibalism, but much weaker in dramatic structure. For one thing, it's hard to distinguish individual prisoners, whose terrible stories tend to blend together. Only with the arrival of the wife do a few faces and personalities come into focus.

In the end, "Ditch" remains an ensemble film in which the suffering of one stands in for the suffering of many. Editor Marie-Helene Dozo weaves about 130 hours of HD footage into a handful of simple, haunting stories. One of the most moving scenes shows a dying man dictating a letter to his brother, begging for food.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Wil Prods., Les Films de L'Etranger, Entre Chien et Loup
Cast: Lu Ye, Lian Renjun, Xu Cenzi, Yang Haoyu, Cheng Zhengwu, Jing Niansong, Li Xiangnian
Director-screenwriter: Wang Bing
Based on the novel by: Yang Xianhui
Producers: K Lihong, Hui Mao, Philippe Avril, Francisco Villa-Lobos, Sebastien Delloye, Dianba Elbaum
Director of photography: Lu Sheng
Production designer: Zhang Fuli
Costumes: Wang FuzhengEditor: Marie-Helene Dozo
No rating, 109 minutes
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
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