JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Patient recordings of the glare and tedium of work ...

... and relaxation.

Machines and bodies: workers unloading sacks of raw materials ...

... and hauling coal.

A worker confides that face masks cannot stop the toxic air.

1960s Communist propaganda posters on industrialization ...

... when workers dominated machines.

Images from part two, Remnants

A lottery in Tiexi district ...

... with hopeful and envious onlookers.

Enunciation and tact in
Wang Bing’s cinematography

Keeping up a solidarity with its subjects, Wang Bing’s narrative never flaunts cinematic editing's own superhuman technological resources. He eschews extra-diegetic music, commentary, or any additional source of illumination other than what there is on location, be it flat, overhead, fluorescent lighting or a flickering candle.  He does not spare us the monotone dullness or clamor of machine sounds, nor their blinding glare or darkness.  He takes his camera angles largely from the real or potential perspectives of his subjects, except in the case of interviews, where he often shoots from a low angle, perhaps out of humility and respect.  His small DV camera is often placed on the table along with thermos and rags so that the camera seems a banal object stripped of its powers of surveillance.  Or if Wang Bing holds it, then it is perceived as just another familiar pair of eyes, neither confronted nor averted by the other eyes in the room.  Wang Bing’s subjects are at such ease that they are even ready to walk naked in the presence of his camera. 

The shots thus have neither a performance's exhibitionist staginess, nor a hidden camera's voyeurism.  Nor is the camera fixed to one place only to record everything that comes into the frame, as one might have it in direct cinema.  As Bégaudeau describes this kind of cinematography:

“A factory closed down? What to do? Above all not the machine guns of fixed shots, which, redoubling the immobility of the place, would kill it a second time and set a distance, even if it is that of art.”[7][open endnotes in new window] 

Wang Bing operates with what André Bazin calls cinematic “tact,” where “the camera must be equally as ready to move as to remain still.”[8]   Instead of narratively concentrating on a few characters, Wang Bing allows his camera to be “distracted” if a more striking subject walks into his frame, perhaps even following the latter over a long walk through some slippery or rough passage into a different space. As a result, this kind of cinematography allows the workers' collective movements, so intimate with these inhuman structures of metal and concrete, to sketch out their contours in the workers' habitual arabesques.

Wang Bing listens humbly to workers' musings and grumbles.

He films as he follows people through their daily routines.

Allegorical images of machines and bodies

Rust's true protagonist, in the director’s own words, is the factory itself, as industrial reality and social ideal:

“the workers appear as mere appendages of this vast complex.”[9]

At this point, I wish to explore the interpenetration of the factory and its workers, of machines and bodies. Their daily rhythms and life cycles intermingle but we also see the final severing of their destinies. 

The machines and factory workers share a common history of migration or refugee status (in the 1930s and 1940s), nationalization and collectivization (1950s and 1960s, when industry and workers became China’s national symbols), and then reform and opening of a new economic era (in the 1980s, when the products of machine processes and their accompanying body gestures became obsolete).  On an everyday level, in the early days the machines’ tireless rhythm necessitated work shifts that subverted natural rhythms of work and rest. The seasons also have little impact on the working environment, since most factory workshops must be kept at a constant temperature.  We see the workers either in uniform or nude, both of which have the same effect of negating any difference among them—or, as Lu puts describes the visual descriptions of the workers in the film:

“the human form is reduced to an object of indifference.”[10]  

Beyond shared rhythms and physical environment, these bodies are intimate with the machines in another sense.  As one of the copper workers confides to Wang Bing’s camera, the facemasks they wear could not stop them from inhaling one hundred times the national standard of lead in the air, which led to dire medical consequences such as infertility.  In the second half of Rust, workers of the bankrupt Lead Foundry receive their last injections to eliminate lead in their blood, a one-month treatment formerly conducted four times a year.  That is, they had rendered up their health to the factory, which had promised to care for them in sickness and old age, but that's now a social contract sealed by the toxin in their blood.  For this reason, the sequence has a sad valedictory overtone, a final severing of machine from body, since the hospital becomes the final station of their journey to a common destiny. 

Last injections to rid their blood of lead after the factoryís bankruptcy.

Final bonding between workers in the hospital.

In Wang Bing’s portrayal, machines and bodies bear an altogether different kind of relation to visual representations of factories and workers from China’s early days of industrialization. The earlier aesthetic, derived primarily from Soviet Socialist Realism, depicted workers as paragons of strength, placed in exaggerated heroic postures. In filmic terms, this superhuman strength was presented primarily through montage juxtaposing and conflating the workers with the machines, empowering the former by associating it with the latter and anthropomorphizing the latter with the former.  In Rust, however, the workers appear dwarfed and emasculated by the giant machines they supposedly control.  More slaves than masters, they have to use all their life force and energy to lift a small fraction of a machine’s effortless load, as in sequences where they must transport raw material or finished products at a missing junction of the mechanical assembly line. To keep company with machines also means being constantly poisoned, weakened, and even chemically castrated.

Having found his monumental subject in a place of decline, Wang Bing’s cinematic vision is allegorical rather than symbolic.[11] The workers appearing before his camera by no means resemble the iconic model-worker image one could find in many Chinese public statues or even once on the nation’s currency as symbols of the working class.  Rather, as they scramble together the material remnants of their factory and the narrative scraps of their promised utopia, they are confronted with “objects radiant with a significance not their own but reflected off the face of death.”[[12]   Thus, in the second half of Rust, Wang Bing’s camera returns to haunt the closed factories to memorialize them before they are dismantled piece by piece for scrap to recycle into new private enterprises.  He traces out the same paths where he filmed before, now without the workers. He finds there just one fellow scavenger who digs through the piles of garbage left in the lockers or on floors and who picks up, among other useless things, an workers’ ID, old accounting sheets, and some faded slogans. For Wang Bing, such found objects could be read as allegories for the workers' lost identities and creeds.  

In one exceptional manipulation of cinematic illusion in a film that rarely uses even extra-diegetic sound or montage, the filmmaker walks through a labyrinth of passages in the basement of one factory, where he finds the old workers' bathing room, seen with its big collective bathtub still full of steaming water.  Here, the film fades to black, and then the image slowly fades into one of two men bathing in the same tub, their figures indistinct and dreamlike in the mist.  One sits cross-legged and is scrubbing his feet briskly.  The other is standing in the tub and washing his face with a towel.  As if to confirm that this was indeed an illusion, a ghost image, the film then cuts back to the empty bathtub, now cold and no longer steaming.

In Rust, workers are dwarfed by machines.

After the factory closes down, scavenging through the rubble ...

... finding a workerís ID and other useless reminders of the past.

Ghost image of workers in the factory bath.

Figure of the recycler

Part II, Remnants, opens with a public raffle in a residential neighborhood of Tiexi District, where the master of ceremony’s appeal to the crowd is a tongue-in-cheek collage of stock propaganda phrases from the Mao era and folk witticisms from the Deng era,

“an approximation of the call to collective Communist discipline and of the liberal incitation to consumerism.”[13]  

Filming the stage in close-up with a telescopic lens and without a tripod, Wang Bing, moreover, seems to be shuddering from the cold.  Yet the shaky view, complemented by the low angle, also recreates the perspective of the masses watching the show.  After the crowd disperses, we see a man picking up discarded raffle tickets from the ground as the wind blows most of them away; they seem like scraps of hope that have nothing to cling to.  A scavenger of fortune, the man checks each ticket, just in case one winner had been thrown away by accident, but in vain. 

Such scavenging continues into the next day. The stage has been dismantled and the raffle site turned into an overnight ruin covered by a new layer of snow.  A lone man hammers the field until he finds a small repository of scrap iron.  Then a scrap iron collector passes by, pays the man, and loads the unwieldy sticks onto his skeletal tricycle.  Another recycler passes through the lens, dragging jagged planks of wood behind him, taking advantage of the path made by the iron collector’s tricycle. 

A scavenger of fortune picks up discarded lottery tickets.

After the lottery, a man recycles the leftover scrap iron and cardboard.

These opening images establish the figure of the recycler, who is already at work by the end of Rust but only gains prominence in this part of the trilogy.  Recycling is, after all, the final means of eking out a living for the unemployed.  Everyone, regardless of age, could find and sell reusable waste for a small profit.  Their labor puts into use not just waste paper, scrap iron, cans and bottles, wood and bricks and other material waste, but also their own physical and mental energy, which would also otherwise go to waste.  Yet their labor is also destructive in that they collaborate with the very same forces of demolition that aim to dismantle their factories and raze their homes to the ground.  In the same way that the workers participate in the laying to ruins of the factory, the inhabitants of the about-to-be demolished neighborhood are the first ones to destroy their own homes, taking or selling their fragments to get the most out of this helpless situation.  They haggle over every cent, even though (or because) they know that with the onslaught of the new capitalist era and changes in the state, no bargain is possible.

Children bargain with a recycler of cans.

Firewood from the rubble of abandoned houses.

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