An old resident worries about the imminent demolition of her home.
Residents bargain over compensation with the authorities...
When electricity is cut off ...
... tweaking an old gas lamp.
Images from part three: Rails.
A locomotive named “East is Red”...
Old Du and his son Du Yang.
Unaestheticized despair: Du Yang’s breakdown after Old Du’s release.
A cinema of vanishing rubble: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006).
In a rare use of extra-diegetic sound, Wang Bing superimposes an announcement about the neighborhood’s imminent “resettlement” over images shot on the street of residents reading the announcement on electricity poles. Using extra-diegetic sound creates an effect of a panoptic authority's omnipresence. It seems that a state force is about to seize possession of this neighborhood, so that its inhabitants discover, all of a sudden, that they are no longer standing in their own territory.
As their homes are suddenly transformed into “the space of the other,” the inhabitants have no choice but respond to state and real estate developers' “strategies” with guerrilla “tactics.”[open endnotes in new window] With decades of experience telling them that there is little use resisting any state-sponsored action, they break down into small groups to discuss the exact measurements of their homes in order to get the most reimbursement available through laws made without their input. The residents make calculations often directed not just at the state but also at their neighbors or even their own family members. Those with means move out and take the best offers, while those without means try to exclude elder generations or orphans from receiving resettlement claims, all the while negotiating with the authorities. Those who remain understand that every day they stick it out entails a financial loss for the developer, so that staying on becomes their way of manipulating the latter’s impatience, which can then either turn into grudging generosity or reckless cruelty.
When the state and developers impose more punitive strategies by cutting off the neighborhood's water and electricity, the residents simply revert to earlier, more primitive ways of existence, not yet entirely forgotten because living simply is just one generation away. As Bégaudeau writes of this section,
Without electricity, the women try to prepare meals before night falls or rely on candles and gas lamps, which illuminate not only their houses in the dark winter night but also their images as recorded by Wang Bing’s camera. Some of them also steal electricity. After all, having been masters of this territory for so many years, they know exactly how to tap secretly into its network of wires and pipes.
As a one-man documentarist who cannot be in several places at once, Wang Bing chooses to stay with the last residents as the neighborhood empties itself out—staying, as the title Remnants tells us, with these remnants, who are not just scrap metal but also “leftovers of human life.” Such a “cinematic being-with,” in Wang Bing’s case, is also a “walking-with.” The trajectories of footsteps through the vast and dense place that is his subject are an essential part of his cinematic tact or tactic. Walking with the inhabitants through their dispossessed neighborhood, Wang Bing adopts their tactic of moving spontaneously, as opposed to a common filmmaking strategy of planned shots with careful framing and smooth movements. For the most part, he follows people rather than anticipate them walking into the frame. And his persistence as a cinematographer eliminates any need to make up metaphors with words or montage. When we see a man selling his books as waste paper and then haggling over a few dimes, we can infer the total inversion of values that has taken place with the changing times. Toward the end of Remnants, one of the last families left in the neighborhood gather together all its members to burn “hell money” to pacify the soul of their dead mother so that she might help them get a decent apartment. In the wake of failed promises of a socialist utopia and in a new vacuum of faith, the people revert to time-honored ancestral veneration and tokens of respect.
Apart from spontaneous movements and the recycling of found objects/allegories, Wang Bing may identify with the tactics of the Tiexi residents in one more way. As an underground filmmaker, severed from his earlier association with an official system of media production, he must also scramble to gather all his meager resources to make a film at all. In making this film he never had enough money to buy his own camera, and he did his editing initially at night in local television facilities, to which a friend helped him gain unofficial access. His own precarious status as an underground filmmaker may well account for his sympathy for the people of Tiexi District and, in turn, their trust in him not to abuse their images and stories.
Rails and the archetype of the survivor
Rails, the third and shortest part of the trilogy, follows a small team of railway men responsible for transporting raw materials and finished products in and out of Tiexi district. Their locomotive is named “East is Red,” after a hosanna to Chairman Mao, a name pregnant with the empty grandeur of history. As factories close down, the men also have little to do and are often filmed sleeping in the driver’s cabin as the locomotive drones through the increasingly deserted landscape across the changing seasons. Tracking shots from the trains, on a much grander scale than those filmed walking, serve to map and multiply the ruins portrayed in detail in the first two parts. If we might call the earlier two parts a “cinema of excavation,” here is a “cinema of accumulation” in a more horizontal sense. The tracking shot from a train is the only way to capture the monumental skeletons of old factories, their windows of broken glass like empty eye sockets, and their last recyclable remnants being carried away by human scavengers.
At the same time that Rails multiplies the spaces explored in the first two parts, it also contains a story that synthesizes their various loose strands of human destinies into two individual archetypes of the Chinese survivor. Old Du, who is not an employee of the railroad, lives with his 17-year-old son Du Yang in a makeshift shack of sheet iron built adjacent to a factory storehouse. They make a living by doing menial chores for the railwaymen who have come to tolerate them and who take Old Du on trains from factory to factory so that he might gather (or steal) coal for sale. One day, Old Du is arrested, and Wang Bing’s camera stays with Du Yang through the youth's anxious waiting period. During that time, the lad receives an ultimatum about their imminent eviction from the shack, and then his father is released a week later. Wang films their reunion dinner when Du Yang finally breaks down from the pent-up pressure of the past few days. This scene, one of the film’s most heartrending, ends with Old Du carrying his son home on his back.
In an interview with Cahiers du Cinema, Wang Bing is asked if this final focus on Old Du and his son may be a gesture towards narrative. His reply:
Old Du seems more an archetype or “everyman” than a character or personality, and his life a parable for the common destiny of the millions of workers to whom West of the Tracks is dedicated. He is a commoner, not distinguished from the masses by any unique ability or extraordinary experience, but epitomizes their ability to survive and absorb suffering. In addition, his theft of coal, indispensable household fuel in the severe winters of Northeast China, is a modern Promethean act of stealing light and warmth from an authoritarian and corrupt state where big thieves never get caught. Old Du came to clashes with the system before, in the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, when his father had tried to teach him an “honest trade” of pot-stewing meat. Since private business, however small, was considered illegal, all their tools were confiscated and his father thrown into a makeshift jail. The story seems to repeat itself in the next generation with Old Du and Du Yang. The lad, though much more delicate than his father, nevertheless understands the fundamental necessity of his father’s theft. On the night after his father’s arrest, he sits in a dark room with a single candle. For a good while we see nothing but the tiny light of his cigarette swinging up and down through the darkness, a meager but unmistakable light testifying to his existence and that of the filmmaker-witness. The next morning, when Du Yang waits for his father to come home from jail, he comes into the shack from the desolate landscape outside and fills a stove with coal, rhyming with an earlier gesture of his father’s. In the film, this practical act of keeping warm is at the same time an allegorical act of keeping the fire going, of staying alive.
In filming Du Yang, Wang Bing incorporates composed close-ups, something quite sparingly used in other parts of the film. The images of the lad are among the film's very few emotionly charged facial close-ups. Perhaps it is because this young face, expressive despite its apparent numbness, is cast out of the same mold as those of his father and grandfather and all the generations before them, thus functioning as a palimpsest of their suffering and resilience. The lad also serves as the guardian of his family history, as he digs out from a flour sack, between nervous puffs of his cigarette, a stack of family photographs wrapped inside layers of plastic. The photographs have the quality of relic, since we know that his mother had abandoned him and his brother at a young age. The electronic clock on the wall now strikes, its flat and cheerful melody here an eerie accompaniment to the large tears welling up in the boy’s eyes. This scene, along with the youth's later breakdown, where he keeps blowing his nose and flinging about on the dirty floor, lets us witness the full extent of his adolescent despair—absurd, grotesque but genuine, unaestheticized by music or soft lighting. Seeing his breakdown leaves us with sharp embarrassment and pain without catharsis.
While introducing the DVD of West of the Tracks, Dominique Païni expressed his belief that “this is not an isolated work,” though “it is the first of its kind,” referring to the film’s special plasticity as a realization of Bazin’s “luminous mold of reality.” In the context of turn-of-the-century China, this film has yet another dimension of significance: it has captured and preserved on video a vanishing (and by now, vanished) world. There are similar cinematic endeavors, notably around the urban ruins of Beijing and the areas to be flooded by the building of the Three Gorges Dam. These films come into existence as their subjects—places, communities, and ways of life—disappear, so that the films already have the quality of relic as they are first released. To watch nine hours without narrative is trying for any audience, but as Païni observes, the work conveys the sense that things break down more rapidly than Wang Bing can film, that 24 frames per second are not quick enough to compete with the rust that encloses the world we see. The filmmakers’ impossible effort at preservation is thus reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:
So all they could do is to film the mountainous strata of ruins with DV cameras.