(France/China/Germany, 86 min.)
Dir. Wang Bing
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)
I don’t know if it’s Chinese master documentarian Wang Bing’s rare skills—pairing the professional’s easy way with subjects with the artist’s formal assuredness—or the unprecedented crudeness of this late capitalist epoch that makes Mrs. Fang such a vital variation on the old-relative-dies/younger-generation-is-callous archetype. There have been classics in the genre: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, of course — itself inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow — and Hou Hsiao-Hsien does it three times over in A Time to Live and a Time to Die. In those films, though, there’s a latent sentimentality, the possibility of redemption; by contrast, Mrs. Fang’s bleak, taut 90 minutes excise all extraneous detail, giving the film a sort of Aristotelian unity, a tragic emotional arc that amplifies its theme to the level of allegory. So what acclaimed Chinese documentarian Wang Bing does in Mrs. Fang is nothing new, exactly, except that its taut 90 minutes leave no room for extraneous detail, giving the film an Aristotelian unity, a tragic emotional arc that amplifies its story’s theme to the level of allegory.
Archetype, allegory, Aristotelian: big words for an observational documentary. But that’s what it is. Dramatis personae: Mrs. Fang, dying, in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, unable to speak or even really move; her male relatives, gamblers and fishermen, brutes who catch fish bleached white by the polluted river they found them in and then hand them off to their wives to prepare while they gamble and tell stories about beating people up; her female relatives, constantly watching TV, perennially in the background, gossiping and then feeling guilty about it. The story: she’s sick and then she dies.
Wang’s favourite technique here is the long-take close-up of Mrs. Fang’s face. Emptied of memories, and apparently of consciousness too; unable to speak or act at all, and the object of care, disgust, indifference, Mrs. Fang is a pure cypher. Watching her the way Wang does becomes an experiment in empathy: how do you care about somebody whose humanity has almost completely drained out of them?
That’s the challenge faced by Mrs. Fang’s family. Wider shots show the cramped, dirty room of a type familiar to anyone who’s watched a Chinese film in the past twenty years. In those rooms, Mrs. Fang’s family occasionally remember she’s there—but mainly they just watch TV and bicker. Outside is the polluted river—again, a familiar site—and the gambling, fishing, brawling men who roam the podunk town mostly with their shirts pulled up over their protruding bellies. There’s something interesting about them, an ugly down-home masculinity that plays out in jibes, work, games, the sort of thing—informal, vital—that you used to see all the time, in Hawks and Altman and Perrault, and sometimes seems sorely lacking in today’s cinema. Then you see why you might not want to see much of it because of what they represent: blatant misogyny, ignorance, violence, callousness. All the while, Mrs. Fang wastes away.
Those long, long looks at Mrs. Fang’s face bring to mind another reference: Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and its famous concentration on Maria Falconetti’s impassive visage. (The concise dramaturgy and austere aesthetic are further parallels.) Death, explicitly in Joan of Arc and more implicitly in Tokyo Story and A Time to Live and a Time to Die is sacrifice: body is sacrificed for spirit and ideal; the old die so that the young may live unburdened; etc. What of Mrs. Fang? Wang’s film works in that same tragic register, but, unlike Dreyer’s, Ozu’s or Hou’s films, there’s no upshot. There’s only death—complete death, physical and mental and spiritual and environmental. All that’s left at the film’s end is a polluted landscape and the people who eke out what seems to be a relatively miserable existence in it.
Still, it doesn’t exactly feel as misanthropic as all that. It’s not about individual failings. No: it’s the polluted landscape, on the one hand, and the enormity—impossibility—of the task of caring for the vegetating Mrs. Fang, on the other, that give the film its pathos. There’s nothing to be done.
TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.