In December 2004, after 20 years away, Yu Guangyi returned to his home in Heilongjiang (part of the former Manchuria, now Northeast China) and joined a timber gang on their trek up the Changbai Mountains to spend the winter cutting down trees and sliding them down the snowy slopes. Untrained as a filmmaker, he shot everything that happened on a digital video camera: the arduous climb to Black Bear Valley, a fertile pocket in the mountains where trees grow tall; the physical sufferings of men and horses working together in sub-zero temperatures at 1,600 metres above sea-level; the superstitions and rituals, including the short break for the Lunar New Year Festival; the banter in the makeshift canteen and on the brick-bed kang at night; and, in late March, the return to home villages and “normal” lives as jobbing labourers. It took more than 18 months to edit the many hours of footage he brought down the mountain.
Yu turned out to be an excellent cameraman (the film bursts with indelible images), and it turned out to be an advantage that he had no training. Timber Gang shows none of the bad habits of orthodox documentaries. There’s no attempt to impose a storyline, no didactic voiceover, in fact no clichés of any kind. Instead the film offers total immersion in a small world that—thankfully—most of us will never experience at first hand. Nothing has been sanitized, and some will find some of the images shocking or disturbing—but not as shocking as the revelation in the film’s final moments. —Vancouver International Film Festival