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Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing gets death ready for its close-up in Mrs. Fang, his Locarno Golden Leopard winner that’s as unflinching as it is gloomy. The film’s relatively fleet 86-minute running time is miniscule compared to the whopping 551 minutes of his 2003 masterpiece, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, though slow-cinema aficionados needn’t worry that Wang has suddenly done Michael Bay one better. Indeed, the ghostly Mrs. Fang is also literally very bare-bones, with the director offering practically no backstory about the dying title character other than the fact she was born in the Zhejiang sticks in 1948 and has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for eight years. Unable to speak anymore, she physically wastes away in front of the camera over the course of 10 agonizing days while her loved ones comment on her situation as they scurry around her bed and the male members of the family occasionally go out fishing for sustenance.
What little poetry there is comes more from what Wang tries to provoke in the viewer than what’s onscreen, with the shaky handheld and frequently penumbral aesthetic only reinforcing the mundane banality of the event, making this chronicle of Mrs Fang’s foretold death at once highly specific and completely universal. The unusually intimate documentary’s big win at Locarno can only further consolidate Wang’s reputation as one of the foremost nonfiction chroniclers from China, though no critic is likely to argue that this is his best work.
The film is set in an unremarkable village in the eastern Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, and opens with a few wordless shots of Fang Xiuying from 2015, as she stands in a corridor. She doesn’t really say anything but at least she seems clearly aware of the camera and the man behind it and she seems to be in decent physical health. The brief images are pretty nondescript but will start to haunt the film that follows when it becomes clear that for the 10 rainy summer days of 2016 that Wang subsequently chronicles and that were her last, Mrs. Fang is unable to leave her bed, is almost completely immobile and can’t even communicate about her most basic needs.
“She just lies there, staring,” comments one of the dozen or so family members milling about the narrow, elongated and spartanly decorated room that Mrs. Fang occupies and which doesn’t contain much more than two beds and a fridge from another era. “It must be awful,” another one says to no one in particular. As the days wear on and contact with Mrs. Fang becomes ever more impossible, her son, daughter and various aunts, uncles and other family members start talking about the protagonist as if she wasn’t really there or as if she were already dead. Her place of burial is discussed openly, as they sit around her bed.
It’s unclear how much, if anything, the ailing woman can still understand. Her loved ones start to wonder whether they can even tell the difference between when Fang is awake and when she’s asleep. Her eyes seem to be perpetually half-open, just like her mouth, with the two rows of teeth revealed by a mouth that’s semi-agape, eerily recalling the image of a skull. Wang offers several shaky close-ups of the protagonist’s face with its parched skin, stretched paper-thin over her cranium. There is never an idea of who this woman really was or is, though her very modest belongings and the unremarkable village where she lives suggest something about her humble background. The fact that some of the dozen or so people in her family that are present still complain about this or that nephew or niece not being there suggests the sexagenarian was loved and had a support system, and that it’s a family that feels that it needs to look after one another and that solidarity and respect and the observation of certain mores are important.
But what are they all doing in that small room, huddled around that bed with its jarringly contemporary, aggressively colorful duvet? The images might be frequently prosaic digital video shots, but the way in which Wang and co-editor Dominique Auvray string them together make it abundantly clear that the agony of death is preceded by the possibly even greater agony of the endless waiting for death to take hold.
As if to contrast the oppressive claustrophobia surrounding Mrs. Fang’s slow slide into oblivion in her unadorned home, Wang occasionally follows some of the men in the family as they go out fishing at some nearby lakes. As framed by Wang and his fellow cinematographers Yang Wang and Kong Lihong, these excursions suggest a tiny bit more about where China finds itself today — and which Wang has extensively covered in his other films — as the fishermen rely on electrofishing to attract the animals and the waterways on which they fish aren’t idyllic spots in nature but rather remnants in a landscape where industrial buildings never seem far away.
There is little attempt to connect the gathering of food (which involves killing) with Fang’s slow expiration other than the suggestion that life continues for Fang’s family. In a few instances, these scenes border on — pardon the pun — overkill, especially a minutes-long shot from behind of three fishermen walking down a lakeside path as they make barely audible small talk that’s not even translated in the subtitles.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the visceral power of Wang’s insistence on looking encroaching death, as it were, in the eye and the filmmaker exercises appropriate restraint when the final moment does come. Mrs. Fang is allowed her own personal, minutely detailed calvary as an individual but, especially because we know so little about the woman herself, in a sense she becomes all of us, as death will come knocking on all our doors sooner or later.
Production companies: Ideale Audience, Wil Productions, All Ways Pictures, Documenta 14
Writer-director: Wang Bing
Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Yang Wang, Kong Lihong
Cinematography: Wang Bing, Shan Xiaohui, Bihan Ding
Art directors: Wu Shenfang, Zhu Zhu
Editors: Wang Bing, Dominique Auvray
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
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