Three Sisters (San zi mei): Venice Review

Chinese rural poverty in a remote hillside village is exhaustively chronicled over two-and-a-half taxing but ultimately rewarding hours.

Chinese maestro Wang Bing return to documentary-making chronicles rural poverty and took top prize in Venice's Orizzonti sidebar.

China's most acclaimed documentary-maker consolidates his lofty reputation with Three Sisters (San zi mei), which sees Wang Bing return to non-fiction two years after his debut feature The Ditch competed for Venice's Golden Lion. Likewise premiering on the Lido before a North American bow in Toronto, this challenging two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of rural poverty in a remote mountain community beat some strong contenders to take the Orizzonti sidebar's top honors and is guaranteed plentiful exposure at serious-minded festivals.

While little more than a vignette in comparison with Wang's nine-hour international breakthrough Tie Xi Qu - West of the Tracks (2003), Three Sisters' daunting length and tough subject-matter will unfortunately restrict its viewership to adventurous cinephiles and those particularly interested in the topical issues raised. Small-screen prospects are similarly limited, but this Chinese/French co-production appeals as a long-term high-end DVD prospect, especially if packaged along with Wang's previous marathon enterprises.

Having interviewed elderly labor-camp survivor for 2007's unadorned, three-hour Fengming - A Chinese Memoir (also known as Chronicle of a Chinese Woman), Wang now turns his attention to the opposite end of the age-spectrum. Indeed, this latest project could more accurately have been entitled Yingying - A Chinese Childhood, as ten-year-old Sun Yingying has much more screen time than both of her siblings combined. 

With their mother having abandoned the family. and their father Shunbao seeking work in a far-off city, the sisters - Yingying, six-year-old Zhenzhen and four-year-old Fenfen - spend the autumn with their grandfather on his tumble-down farm in a hilly corner of Yunnan province, bordering Burma in China's far south. And while there are episodes set in a relatively nearby school, formal education is evidently less of a priority than helping out with the farm's many animals - pigs, sheep, goats, chickens - and its potato crops. This burden falls especially strongly on Yingying, an uncomplaining factotum whose workload would doubtless tire many adults.

Wang observes Yingying and the other children, including various friends and cousins, as they endure often squalid and unhygienic conditions with cheerful resilience, clearly never having known any other way of life. Dispensing with score and voice-over, and with only a small handful of explanatory captions, Wang nevertheless makes eloquent points about how the villagers on view have yielded so few benefits from their country's booming economic success, and about how the children in particular enjoy few of the rights and pleasures their counterparts in other developed nations have long taken for granted. Supervision is rare and opportunities for play fleeting, though occasionally the kids do get to wander the spectacularly windswept terrain around the farm, these misty hillscapes a welcome change from the murky darkness of the farm's interiors.

Many documentaries give the viewer a chance to 'visit' places otherwise unfamiliar and practically inaccessible, but Three Sisters also offers a kind of time-travel, as little appears to have changed in this area for decades or even centuries. The tumbledown farmstead with its muddy yard and rudimentary stone constructions looks like something out of Wuthering Heights - ironic, given that the seminal Anton Chekhov play from which Wang cheekily borrows his title was itself part-inspired by the plight of the Brontës in their provincial parsonage.

Originating as an 18-minute 'postcard' film entitled Xi Yi Tang (Happy Valley) and made for Barcelona's Center for Contemporary Culture in 2009, Three Sisters now sprawls in leisurely and sometimes repetitive fashion across its 150-odd minutes. This unvarnished work's monumental nature will of course be part of its distinction and appeal for many, but one could also argue that a more conventional running-time might focus and thus sharpen the strength of Wang's vision, and make it accessible to wider audiences who may never even ponder the realities of China's forgotten poor.

And while the three credited cinematographers find an unassumingly poetic kind of grandeur in the external scenes, their digital cameras - whose proximity is hardly ever acknowledged by those being filmed - often yield excessively dark images during sequences that take place inside the farm buildings and are thus reliant on the dim available light. What we do see, of course, is often remarkable in its stark, moving simplicity, such as Yingying silently and reflectively munching on yet another potato.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti), September 8, 2012.

Production companies: Album Productions, Chinese Shadows
Director: Wang Bing
Producers: Sylvie Faguer, Mao Hui
Directors of photography: Wang Bing, Li Peifeng, Huang Wenhai
Editors: Adam Kerby, Wang Bing

Sales agent: Album Productions, Paris
No MPAA rating, 153 minutes