To those unfamiliar with his work, the cinema of Wang Bing is certainly intimidating. Documentaries of epic runtimes that can extend upwards of 15 hours. Subject matter that can range from abject childhood poverty, persecuted refugees seeking asylum, unethical living standards under hyper-capitalism, or the systemic injustices perpetuated by the Chinese government. In the case of Dead Souls (2018), it’s an uncompromising 8-hour long documentary about the mass deaths that occurred at Jiabiangou Labour Camp during China’s Great Leap Forward between the years of 1958 and 1962. You often hear the insult of Oscar bait being flung to self-important works striving for mainstream recognition, and from a distance, one could stereotype the work of Wang Bing as being the arthouse equivalent. Is this the work of a self-indulgent misanthrope committed to shoving the audience’s face at life’s cruelty for the appearance of depth? Fortunately, as someone who has used the free time afforded by Covid-19 lockdowns to delve deeper into his work, I can safely say that is not the case. The experience of watching Dead Souls is a challenging one due to its disturbing subject matter, daunting runtime and formal austerity. But for those prepared to make the commitment, they can expect to come away with a deeper knowledge of this troubling era of Chinese history and a genuine empathy for the victims who had to suffer through arbitrary persecution and unimaginable cruelties.
Dead Souls was a project long in gestation before its 2018 release, with the filming of survivor testimonials beginning in 2005 and continuing intermittently up until 2017. It’s not the first film of his to be about this period of Chinese history. Wang Bing’s research into Anti-Rightist labour camps predates the release of his masterful debut, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002). He was in contact with labour camp survivor He Fengming around 1995 in preparation for his sophomore release He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), a sister project of sorts in relation to Dead Souls, as both films rely exclusively on survivor testimonials and share similar formal elements. There is a difference between the scope of both projects, however. He Fengming solely focuses on its titular survivor and covers a wider timespan of her life, following her two separate experiences of different labour camps during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution respectively. It also details her life after the camps including the long process to be fully politically rehabilitated in the eyes of the Chinese government. By comparison, Dead Souls only covers testimonials relating to the Jiabiangou labour camp during the Great Leap Forward and rather than a singular perspective, it involves multiple survivors.
Chronologically, it’s also technically not the first Wang Bing project to be about Jiabiangou, as he had earlier released his first fiction film, The Ditch (orig. Jiabiangou), in 2010. A curiosity of sorts for being the only Wang Bing film thus far to be comprised entirely of dramatic recreation but, unfortunately, it is not entirely a success in its execution. The final release of Dead Souls feels like a summation of sorts on his research into this topic; a sprawling film dense with details that doesn’t care to conform to the usual expectations of traditional documentary form or runtime.
The film is structured by creating individual portraits of each survivor willing to tell their story. Each segment is entirely self-contained with no crosscutting between participants. Every person is afforded time to tell their story with minimal intrusion. By the end of the film, repeated details contained within these personal accounts begin to accumulate into a broader collectivist portrait of the similar shared experiences encountered at Jiabiangou. Men were often initially accused of being Rightist based on Kafkaesque bureaucratic quotas to be fulfilled, or nonsensical policies asking party members to provide constructive feedback and then punishing them for voicing said criticisms. Sometimes, personal grudges from members in higher positions of power within the hierarchy was enough of a reason for the accusation. Other times, a concrete explanation was never actually provided.
Although there were many camps with varying living conditions, Jiabiangou became notorious for the severity of its uninhabitability. Out of the approximate 3000 prisoners sent there in 1958, only around 500 were known to have survived by its closure in 1961. Food was scarce, the alkaline soil made it impossible to grow things and prisoners were expected to dig their own cave-like structures in mostly futile attempts to survive the harsh winter seasons. Death became commonplace; normalised to the point where remaining survivors gave up burying their peers in fear of exerting themselves into an early grave. As you can imagine, the extent of physical and mental traumas vividly retold by these survivors would be too long to list, or as one survivor chilling summarised, “You have to understand, we didn’t resemble human beings at that point.”
Stylistically, Wang intentionally restricts his filmic vocabulary to place greater emphasis on the words spoken by the men. Interestingly, the irregular shooting schedule taking place over the course of around 12 years allows us to observe differences in his approach to recording material. The earliest footage, dating from around 2005, is shot with a more primitive digital camera and is much more austere in presentation: he shoots wide, in deep focus and movement is restricted by utilising a tripod with only the occasional pan if there are more than two subjects in conversation. The distant framing showing the subject in relation to their domestic space reminds one of Chantal Akerman’s similar stylistic rigidity.
By comparison, the later footage, shot from 2015 to 2017, benefits from higher visual fidelity due to advancements in digital photography as well as a slightly more impressionistic form of shooting. While shots are still held long on each angle, handheld is used introducing subtle movements. Deep focus is also no longer employed with Wang preferring a shallower focus keeping the subject the primary emphasis in the image; there is the inclusion of more observational footage and, at times, he employs extreme close ups of individuals and doesn’t cut or move the camera away even if someone else is speaking in the room. The rawness of the testimonials and pacing remain consistent but the stylistic visualisation of his approach to intimacy with his subject differs. Wang’s gaze is intense and insistent but respectful and empathetic. He does not rely on music, montage or recreation to manipulate the audience, but rather, he trusts the natural sense of empathy that will build if we just pay attention to each individual.
In addition to the film’s testimonial footage, there is the inclusion of around three observational segments that act as structural breathers: funeral footage of one of the men who had passed away after his interview (due to the film’s long shooting schedule, a lot of them have died before its final release) and two segments documenting the remains of the camp itself; one with survivors shot in 2005, and the bookend of the film that sees Wang revisit the location by himself in 2012.
What remains fascinating about the film despite its weighty challenges is how engaging and strangely hypnotic it is for sustained periods of time. Despite the inherent structural repetition of the stories due to the avoidance of crosscutting, it remains interesting comparing the different personalities of the survivors, the way they tell their stories and deal with the trauma of the events. When one reads about a moment of history that has long passed or is from a culture that is different to one’s own, it is often difficult to fully comprehend the reality of it. While it remains impossible to ever fully know “what it was like” in the past, the experience of engaging with these testimonials paints a vivid picture turning the conceptual into something more eerily tangible and grounded in reality. Given the comparative failure of his dramatic recreation in The Ditch, it’s easy to see why Wang had such confidence in the breadth of his collected material.
That is not to say critical questions cannot be raised, but assessing a film that does not conform to accepted conventions introduces some complications. Not all of Wang Bing’s films have extended runtimes and there are even a few that adhere to the standard 90-minute feature length. Like Tie Xi Que: West of the Tracks (2002), whose accumulated runtime adds up to 9 hours, the epic length of Dead Souls feels less like an attempt at making a “feature” film but represents instead the larger film project it was conceptualised as. Superficially, if I were to make a comparison of the other Wang Bing films I have seen, while I would classify Dead Souls as a great work, it is perhaps not at the level of consistency of Tie Xi Que: West of the Tracks, Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) or Mrs Fang (2017); the latter two being easier to assess due to having more manageable runtimes.
The first 5 or 6 hours of Dead Souls are truly absorbing and Wang’s intentional minimalism proves a strength rather than a hindrance. If there is a flaw of the film, it is that by the final 2 hours, the level of engagement begins to waver at points due to the level of repetition of the stories and the sheer weight of the amount of time passed. One could criticise this aspect as the film faltering in its pacing or becoming self-indulgent in scope. But would it be really fair to critique a film based on traditional expectations when its intentions clearly do not care to adhere to them? Wouldn’t it be audience entitlement to suggest that some segments should be trimmed because they are not as “engaging” as others? This is a film that consists of almost raw survivor testimonials relating to a period of history contemporary China would rather suppress and censor; testimonials that have only become more invaluable as the majority of survivors have now passed due to old age. Given the success of what the film does achieve for large amounts of its runtime, trying to assess its value on where it fits on a rating scale or ranking list seems rather trivial and unnecessary.
Dead Souls, and perhaps the overall cinema of Wang Bing, is demanding and does ask a lot from its audience. Yet his intentions consistently remain sensitive and considerate. His cinema asks us to look at the most vulnerable of society: the downtrodden, the exploited and the oppressed, if only to acknowledge, to contemplate and, hopefully, understand. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at the extent of human suffering in the world but it’s worse if we only look away; to pretend like it didn’t happen.