Shadows of the Opus Magnum: Wang Bing's "Father and Sons"

An aborted project by the great Chinese director turns into a "24 hours in the life of" documentary, feeling like rushes for a film-to-be.
Michael Guarneri

Over the past decade Wang Bing has established himself as one of the most prominent figures in documentary cinema, recording the real lives of ordinary people being the safest, most economical way for an independent filmmaker like him to realize personal film projects in China without the State's approval and financial support. These somewhat difficult conditions of production must always be kept in mind when discussing his output, which also includes two fictional reenactments of actual events—the short film Brutality Factory (2007) and the several-year-in-the-making feature film The Ditch (2010).

Another crucial thing to Wang's work is that his primary interest lies in human emotions, not in political opposition. As he told me in April 2014, he does not consider himself a “political filmmaker” or a “dissident”, because he has no political claims, no political program, no political agenda to put forward. Rejecting two possibly hackneyed labels and keeping a low profile, he strives to show concrete, real-life situations, rather than preaching:

"I am interested in the personal, inner life of the individuals who live in Chinese society. What I try to do is just to look at life and put my personal experience and my past in relation with other people's personal experiences. I look at human everyday life and of course, by doing so, I bring to the screen everyday life issues, some of which are the so called "problems of society". I repeat: personally, I have no political purposes and ambitions. It is true that in my films there are moments in which political affairs are discussed, but this is normal, because in China a lot of things are directly influenced by the Communist Party and politics is everywhere. If I decided to omit the relation between political context and everyday life in my films, then I'd be a "political filmmaker": in fact, in the China of today, the real "political films" are those that carefully avoid mentioning anything political."1

With its 87 minute runtime, Wang's latest documentary Father and Sons (City of Lisbon Award for Best Feature-Length Film at Doclisboa 2014) offers a concise example of the modus operandi sketched above.

At the genesis of Father and Sons there's a meeting between Wang and three fellow-countrymen—stonemason Cai Shunhua and his teenage sons Yongjin and Yonggao—during one of the filmmaker's trips to Yunnan Province, where both Three Sisters (2012) and 'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) were shot. This is not at all unusual for Wang, since Crude Oil (2008), Man With No Name (2009) and Three Sisters were all born out of fortuitous encounters with workers and peasants that took place while the Beijing-based filmmaker was traveling around the country, working on other film projects.

Lacking a detailed statement from Wang himself, one can only guess what got him interested in the lives of Cai and sons. However, Wang's lonely and troubled childhood as recounted in New Left Review n. 82 (for economic reasons, he spent several years in the countryside with his paternal grandfather, away from his parents and siblings; his father died in the workplace when Wang was 14) allows us to hypothesize that the filmmaker might have felt an emotional connection both to the teenage boys missing a parental figure and to their father doing his best to keep what's left of the family united.

As a matter of fact, broken homes are often to be found in Wang's oeuvre: the third part of his 560-minute debut film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) chronicles the relationship between factotum "Old Du" and his affectionate son, missing a runaway wife and a mother respectively; Three Sisters follows three little girls living alone in a mountain village because their father works far away "in the big city" and their mother abandoned them; 'Til Madness Do Us Part dedicates a great deal of screen time to problematic young men put into a mental hospital by their families.

So, as the daily struggle of the Cai family perhaps resonated with his personal history and emotional issues, Wang set out to employ his usual tactic of spending time with his new acquaintances and filming their lives without interfering, with the aim of collecting hours and hours of footage to be condensed and shaped during the editing phase.

However, as Cai's employer-landlord didn't take kindly to having a camera snooping around his property, the shooting of the film lasted only a few days: “We began filming their life on February 2nd 2014. On the morning of the 6th, we received threats from the boss and had to stop filming.”

What's left, as the above statement by Wang quoted in Doclisboa's program notes suggests, is an aborted film. There simply wasn't enough time for Father and Sons to grow and come into being: possibly not enough time for the three protagonists to overcome the initial awkwardness and shyness one instinctively feels in front of a camera, and most certainly not enough time for Wang to closely observe their everyday routine and record it in minute detail. Hence, there wasn't enough filmed material to work on in the editing phase in order to provide the spectators with a comprehensive cinematic reconstruction of the real life of all three family members.

The result is that, contrary to the "usual" Wang documentary film, we are locked out of the inner world of the protagonists and we are simply left to contemplate a taciturn kid hanging around in his hut, mostly in bed: he watches TV, drinks tea, texts someone with his cellphone, chats with his brother, plays with puppy dogs. In spite of the sense of closure achieved through a well-executed "24 hours in the life of..." montage, the feeling is that we are watching some rushes for a film-to-be.

Nevertheless, there are several glimpses of how far richer and more profound Father and Sons could have been, had Wang and his collaborators been given the chance to keep on filming. For example, the movie opens with an amazing shot of Yongjin and Yonggao lying in one single bed, their father's shadow falling on them from off-camera space—a very simple but tremendously effective introduction to the movie's two main themes: the "ghost father" and the absence of personal space in the hut. Coherently, almost every shot in the movie frames said bed, because, in dramaturgic terms, this piece of furniture is the "center of tension" of the family's life: "[Cai Shunhua] sleeps during the day, when his sons are out. The three of them live in a four-square-meter room. Within this tiny space there are an oven and a bed that is actually smaller than a couch. They all sleep there, there's no personal space nor privacy. During the night, the father leaves the bed to his sons and goes to work."2

At a closer look, everyday objects and domestic appliances also play a paramount role in this Chinese working-class, claustrophobic chamber drama about people avoiding and at the same time missing each other. For instance, the constant buzz of TV and cellphones highlights both the paradoxical lack of communication between human beings living so closely together in a cramped room, and their desire to somehow break such silence and isolation. Another interesting yet unfortunately underdeveloped aspect is the parallelism between the Cai family and three dogs (two puppies and, presumably, their mother) that seek shelter in the already-crowded hut: could it be that the dogs are having a better family life than the human beings?

For reasons mentioned before, Father and Sons is far from matching the dissection of human emotions Wang achieved in his previous  features, and, in the end, the Cai family and its dynamics remain as impenetrable as the silence of the man with no name from Wang’s homonymous 2009 video installation. One proof is that most of the fundamental biographic and contextual information that the Chinese filmmaker usually manages to "deliver" through real-life dialogues and situations had to be squeezed into a title card before the final credits: Cai's being a migrant worker, his reunion with Yongjin and Yonggao in 2010 after years of absence, and so on...

As this time the material conditions of production curbed the creator's ambitions, the hope is that some day Wang will have the chance and the financial resources to come back to this project, resume the shooting and turn actuality footage collected at his own risk into the full story of a hardworking father and his two teenage sons. For now, Father and Sons functions only (but it is certainly no small accomplishment) as a raw filmic document of the miserable living conditions the title-characters have to face, scraping out an existence in the outskirts of Fuming.

1. Full interview here:

2. Wang Bing, Alors, la Chine. Entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau & Eugenio Renzi, Paris: Les Praires Ordinaires, 2014, p. 33. My translation.

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