'Ta'ang' ('De'ang'): Berlin Review

Ta'ang still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Asian Shadows
Slow-moving and slightly protracted doc.

Documentarian Wang Bing zeroes in on the lives of refugees living on the war-torn borderlands between Myanmar and China.

While all eyes remain set on the waves of refugees landing on European shores, Chinese documentary-maker Wang Bing’s latest offers a stark reminder that similarly tragic dislocations are happening elsewhere as well. A two-and-a-half-hour treatise about an ethnic minority moving between their war-torn homeland in Myanmar and the Chinese border towns in which they try to seek shelter, Ta'ang is slightly protracted but still visually and thematically engrossing.

Wang — whose previous work was mostly focused on the marginalized in Chinese society or history — has somehow fallen into step with the zeigeist, both in terms of its depiction of a refugee crisis and also the international focus on the future of a post-dictatorship Myanmar. While Ta'ang will not win the auteur that wins new converts, Wang’s standing as a cult hero for slow-cinema aficionados nearly guarantees the film a long life in the festival circuit, as well as berths on themed programs on nationless cultures and communities.

Ta'ang begins with a scene which is familiar to many documentaries about refugees: a uniformed man, presumably a Chinese refugee camp guard, abuses and kicks a traditionally-attired and seemingly uncommunicative tribeswoman from the titular ethnic minority. But onscreen state violence and cultural exotica ends here. After this brief scene, officials and soldiers have become nearly absent; forced by the Chinese authorities to return home to Kokang in Myanmar — the battleground of Myanmar’s army and anti-government rebels — the Ta'ang individuals seen onscreen are thoroughly assimilated to their host cultures, complete with T-shirts, cellphones and other trappings.

But they are outsiders, nevertheless, and Wang chronicles their slow trek home. Though there’s not much trekking, actually: much of the film is devoted to depicting the refugees being stranded in an alien land with minimal support and resources. After a brief ride on a truck, they get off in a small town, buy some supplies and set up camp in the open. Whiling away the night, the dazed refugees engage themselves in stop/start conversations — smatterings of talk edited into one hourlong sequence.

When Wang finally cuts away from this first group, he then follows yet another band of returnees who stopped moving in the middle of a muddy road after hearing explosions and shooting in the distance. Again, Wang manages to reflect the complex social and psychological make-up of these refugees: a woman is wearing a floral hat, jeans and sneakers, while a man walks on, carrying a quaint yellow umbrella in one hand and a meter-long machete in the other.

Always putting his concerns about his country’s past and present at the forefront, Wang never merely makes message films. As shown in previous documentaries such as Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (with sunlight gradually faltering over an interview with a once-persecuted intellectual) and Father and Sons (shot entirely in a room, with a play of shadows reminiscent to Murnau or Tourneur), there’s a lot of aesthetic attention beyond the social commentary.

In Ta'ang, Wang's eye for intriguing visual juxtapositions comes alongside intriguing framing and lighting: using only natural light, the fireside scenes bring out the weary refugees’ rugged facial contours. Adding to that is a soundtrack capturing the distinct ambience surrounding the individuals — Emmanuel Soland’s sound-work providing a texture vital to the viewer’s understanding and empathy of people whose lives are shaped by looming circumstances far beyond their control.

Production companies: Chinese Shadows, Wil Productions
Director: Wang Bing
Producers: Mao Hui, Wang Yang with Wang Jia, Francesca Feder, Daniele Palau
Executive Producers: Wang Di
Director of photography: Shan Xiaohui, Wang Bing
Editor: Adam Kerby, Wang Bing
Sound: Emmanuel Soland
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
International Sales: Asian Shadows
In Ta'ang and Chinese

No rating; 148 minutes