I have recently resumed my collaboration with the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, where from 2004 to 2011 I used to write about Japanese cinema and Japanese culture in general. Most of the stuff I write is of course in Italian, but the newspaper has also a new section in English. As I blogged few days ago, I’d like to broaden the geographical area covered by this blog and more generally to expand my “interests” towards the Asia continent and its documentary world. No best way to kick it off that with a piece on a documentary about Wang Bing (Chinese) made by a Southkorean critic, Jung Sung-il. I wrote a review of the movie, Night and Fog in Zona, for the newspaper (here the original).
It’s always fascinating when cinema reflects on cinema, and even more so when a documentary whose subject is director Wang Bing reflects on itself. Night and Fog in Zona is a documentary, or better yet a cine-essay as it is called by its author: South Korean critic turned director Jeong Sung-il, who follows the renowned Chinese filmmaker throughout a whole winter while he works on two of his projects, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and a sequel to his Three Sisters.
The “coming” of Wang Bing has been, and still is, one of the most important events that occurred in the world of cinema during the last 15 years: not only did he contribute asserting the aesthetic value of digital filmmaking, but with his documentaries he also brought an auroral and liberating gaze upon the world.
It’s thus interesting that Jung Sung-il had the same kind of dawning experience watching West of the Tracks in 2001. “When I was at the Rotterdam Film Festival I bought a ticket for a movie 9 hours and 10 minutes long, I was surprised by its length but went anyway. It begins with a train in movement and it reminded me of the first movie ever made by the Lumière brothers in 1895. Watching Wang Bing’s work I had the feeling of witnessing the cinema of 21st Century just like the audience in 1895 witnessed its birth.”
There’s no narration in Night and Fog in Zona, everything – to be honest not so much — is explained with intertitles: geographical coordinates, places where Wang Bing is headed to, his plans. Sometimes these intertitles also work as a poetic comment to the following scene.
The only time when Wang Bing speaks directly to the camera in an interview-like fashion is at the very beginning of the film, a sequence that works as a brief introduction to his world and his filmmaking style. A few minutes where, among other things, he talks about his filmmaking process, truth in cinema, the impossibility of conveying the totality, his projects, Chinese history and peasants, and the similar cultural background his generation shares with Andrei Tarkovsky.
In the course of almost 4 hours — 235 minutes that however pass very quickly — Night and Fog in Zona encapsulates a lot about Wang Bing’s approach to making a movie: we slowly learn about his habit of taking pictures of the people he films, of talking friendly to them, and about his “interview technique” where he switches from “chatting with” to “shooting at” very smoothly, as if there was a continuity between the two actions.
It’s also interesting to witness how “Wang searches for the ‘strategic point’, the single position from which all of the actions in the scene can be recorded”. This is a fundamental feature of his filmmaking, as the relationship between the camera and the people and things around it determines both the movie’s sense of space and how space itself is conveyed in his works. And space, together with time/duration, is one of the most crucial elements of his cinema.
Another thing we learn from the film is how Wang Bing is a director whose involvement with the subjects of his movies is deeper than we might think from just watching his works: when the camera is off, he’s often seen giving practical help and advices to his “protagonists”.
Particularly fascinating, from a movie making point of view, is a scene where the director and his two collaborators have an evening meeting to watch the footage shot during the day at the Asylum — footage that would eventually become ‘Til Madness Do Us Part. A few but meaningful minutes where he explains the reasons behind his use of long takes, why avoiding telephoto lens, and other rules to follow while shooting, so that the final work can gain a certain consistency, a certain style.
However, the best quality of Night and Fog in Zona is that it’s not only a documentary about Wang Bing shooting his movies, but it’s also shot and conceived — with all the due differences – just like one of them. In terms of style, it mirrors Wang Bing’s work: long takes, no narration, abstract landscapes and experimental music, everything put together to explore his filmmaking and, in a broader sense, contemporary China, a country gazed upon, as in most of Wang Bing’s works themselves, from a peripheral and rural point of view.
One of the best examples of this mirroring process is to be found towards the beginning of the documentary, when the Chinese director and his collaborators move the Yunnan province.
A very long sequence shot from the car everyone is on, that shows us streets, mountains, plains, lights and tunnels almost melting together. A scene almost 10 minutes long, matched with a hypnotic and minimalistic music interacting with the abstract landscape captured by the camera.
We encounter these sort of sequences a couple of times during the movie: another powerful one, shown in slow motion, is inside the asylum. Bing is sleeping and ten or so patients are sitting and moving around him. To give Night and Fog in Zona a further experimental and even meta-filmic touch there are two scenes, placed at the beginning and at the end of the movie, showing us a Korean girl dressed in red sitting in a theater and making a phone call.
The only flaws to be found in this documentary, an otherwise almost perfect work, are some editing choices, in some cases too abrupt, and the pace of the intertitles, definitely too fast. But that’s just splitting hairs, Night and Fog in Zona is definitely one of the best non-fiction movies seen this year, not only for its fascinating subject, but also for its ability to resonate with Wang Bing’s own style at a deep and aesthetic level.
ps: Just for precision’s sake I have to add that Giovanna Maria Branca did the editing of the piece and not the translation, as reported in the newspaper’s website, I wrote it directly in English.