Tiexi District in Shenyang in Northeast China.

Part I: Rust

Part II: Remnants

Part III: Rails

Images from part one: Rust

Establishing shot

Montage sequence from Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1928).


West of the Tracks
salvaging the rubble of utopia

by Jie Li

In 1999, Wang Bing, a young film graduate in his early thirties, began wandering alone through the Teixi District of Shenyang, China’s oldest and largest industrial base, with a small rented DV camera.  A palimpsest of not only Chinese but also world history, the first factories of this place were built in 1934 by the Japanese to produce war goods for the Imperial Army and nationalized after World War II.  After the Communist takeover in 1949, the Soviet Union supplied additional machinery, dismantled from Germany after the war.  As late as the early 1980s, the factories here employed about one million workers, themselves migrants swung by historical upheavals from wars to the Cultural Revolution.  As China made the transition from a planned to a market economy, however, these state-owned factories operated at a loss and closed down one by one, while the workers lost their jobs, or “iron rice bowls,” along with their homes and social networks. 

Director Wang Bing, with his 2006 French DVD release of ...

West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary epic.

By 2001, Wang Bing had shot about 300 hours of footage about the remnant factories and the people who worked and lived in the area, which he spent another two years editing into a nine-hour trilogy, Tiexi Qu or West of the Tracks, with the support of local and foreign friends, ranging from other Chinese avant-garde artists to assistance from the Rotterdam Film Festival.  From 2003 to 2005, various versions and parts of this film trilogy circulated at international film festivals to high critical acclaim, especially in France, where it was released in the cinemas and, in 2006, on DVD.  Dominique Païni, director of the “Cinéma-Paroles-Spectacles” of Centre Pompidou, introduced the DVD-release, calling West of the Tracks “the most surprising thing” he has seen in the cinematic world “after Godard and David Lynch.”[1][open endnotes in new window]   Patient without redundancy, intimate without sentimentality, this film preserves the integrity of its disintegrating subject's time and space, has stunning cinematography, and is edited into a narrative that maintains a humility of perspective rare in documentary treatments of the working class.  

This article seeks to undertake an extensive study of the film’s style, inseparable from its subject matter, and questions how this documentary might constitute an “event” in the development of Chinese or even world cinema.  I shall proceed with my analysis in the order of Wang Bing’s own arrangement of the trilogy, poetically translated into Rust, Remnants, and Rails. These titles indicate not only their subjects—factory, neighborhood, and the network of tracks linking them to each other and to the world beyond—but also Wang Bing’s tactics as a filmmaker.  The order of the trilogy also reflects a certain progression from the fixity of a place to the increasingly vagabond human beings who are at once trapped in and driven from it. The overall narrative gradually shifts its emphasis from the area's general and monumental decline to the individuals trying to survive in this place's crevices.

Penetrating a ruin: three establishing units

The opening, a static, high-angle shot of Tiexi District shows a complex of factories covered by thick layers of snow. Below lies an immense ruin, amidst which the high chimneys, once virtual icons of the Northeast, stand like obelisks to China’s industrial revolution.  The distant but diegetic lull of machinery in the initial shot continues over a sound bridge throughout the scrolling text that informs the audience about the area's history.

The four shots are taken from a camera mounted on the front of a small goods train as it traverses and penetrates Tiexi District's factories and residential areas.  Snowflakes stick to the lens as if to one’s eyelashes, and this snow sticking, along with the occasional small jerk given to the camera by the old railroad tracks, serves to make the cinematography tangible, vulnerable, almost human.  Thus the camera does not just observe or record; it stares, it braves, it searches, and it salvages. Mediated by the camera, the train passes through endless, giant complexes of steel and iron, structures of pure function and mysterious anonymity, and through mushroom clusters of dwarf-like shacks, just as functional and anonymous.  Hardly ever displaying the inexorable velocity that characterizes early filmic representations of train travel and the locomotive, the train here insinuates itself into the languid traffic of the city.  This section has four separate takes, all with the same framing, so that montage here does not seem to have any function except, as André Bazin puts it, “the negative one of inevitable elimination where reality super-abounds.”[2]

Long tracking shots from a freight train begin and end the film ...

... braving the snow and traversing the industrial landscape.

Contrast this with the opening of, say, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1928), where montage serves to enhance the train's kinetic energy as it travels in an unidirectional passage from countryside to cityscape, also marked by factory complexes.  If Ruttman’s train signals the advent of modernity, the making of history, then Wang Bing’s train is a retrogressive “rite of passage into history,” bringing us into a “world already destroyed.”[3]   If Ruttman’s train stops when it has arrived at its destination, then Wang Bing’s train stops because it has run out of energy and has no choice but to stagnate, left in its place of origin. 

The third establishing shot, a copper smelting site at Shenyang Foundry, is a handheld tracking shot along a platform with railings. The shot heads toward a whirlwind of rising white smoke that assailing and eventually envelops the lens in its foggy mystery.  François Bégaudeau, whose review in Cahiers du Cinéma is entitled “Après le siècle, en marche (After the century, on foot),”calls Wang Bing’s walking cinematography an “invisible line that traverses a shot,” which brings a place “into existence.”[4] Wang Bing does not, however, walk on a flat surface, but a layered ruin.[5]   In this sense, as a filmmaker-archeologist, he's trying to salvage the scattered rubble of a socialist utopia that never was.  The fragments of the past he'll pick up along the way remain unsorted into chronology, narrative, or any other imposed hierarchy of meaning.  

As a filmmaker-archeologist, Wang Bing walks...

... through factories turning into ruins.

In cinematic terms, it is perhaps useful to recall Bazin’s metaphor of the stone bridge of narrative arcs vs. the “big rocks that lie scattered in a ford,” whose “reality as rocks” are preserved even if one uses them to cross the river and arrive at meaning.[6] More than rocks in a ford, Wang Bing’s shots seem like bits of rubble in the ruin itself, not yet pieces in a museum nor incorporated into a new structure of meaning.  Rather, the images invite us to explore and excavate along with the filmmaker, whose presence, though never directly on camera, is always unmistakably felt.  In this work the camera does not just objectively record what stands in front of its lens, but it also traces the imprint of its own experience, synonymous with that of the director not just in optical or auditory terms, but also in the sense that it goes through the same trials by cold, heat, and dust as do the director and the subjects he films.

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