Alone is the shorter version (89′) of Three Sister, a documentary about three little girls living alone in the mountains of the Yunnan province in China, a movie that was entered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. Both of them are directed by Wang Bing, one of the most prominent filmmakers working today in non-fiction. Here’s the synopsis, taken from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam where the movie premiered in 2013:
Ten years after Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, which documented China’s transition to a modern industrial society and the growing pains this involves, filmmaker Wang Bing finds three sisters aged four, six and ten living with no parents 10,000 feet above sea level, in a small village in Yunnan province. Their mother has disappeared, while their father works in a nearby city and comes home every now and again to bring them new clothes. Family members and other villagers help keep the three children alive – efforts which, along with the communal vegetable garden, evoke the old days of socialism. This oscillation between modernization on the one hand and older values on the other is reflected by switching from long, patient observation by the camera to sudden accelerations and questions from the filmmaker, who operates the camera himself while recording the silent desperation and deprivations of this fragmented family. The mist that surrounds the village almost daily gives the impression that it has withdrawn from the rest of the world – although this proves an illusion. The surrounding areas are modernizing, the mayor explains, so the cost of living will have to increase here, too. All this escapes the children completely. They are too busy collecting food and delousing one another to notice.
More than a review of the movie, I’m sure you can find them out there in the vastness of the internet, what I’d like to do today is to throw some thoughts on the technical and aesthetic aspects of Wang Bing’s filmmaking, elements that make his movies – specifically Alone and by extension Three Sisters – a cinema of immanence (the definition is of course taken from Deleuze, you can read something about Wang Bing and the French philosopher here, while this review in Italian gave me the idea for this post).
I think it’s not far fetched to say that it is because we, as viewers, are compelled and fascinated by the visual quality of Wang Bing’s works, that we also feel so engaged and moved by the stories he depicts in his documentaries. Remarkable is for instance the use he does of light, natural when shooting in the big expanses of rural China, and artificial -diegetic – when the filming takes place indoor; it’s something really impressive, but that often goes unnoticed because the subjects filmed and the stories told, socially and politically relevant, capture and consume the viewer attention. Every scene shot inside the shack where the three sisters live feels in fact like a painting, and this happens for a series of technical reasons: use of light, camera position, framing, duration and time of filming.
(a still from Night and Fog in Zona)
Something I’ve noticed when I was watching Night and Fog in Zona, the beautiful documentary on Wang Bing by Jung Sung-il, something very simple but at the same time a sort of revelation on his movie making style, is the way Wang Bing holds his camera (if I’m wrong I hope some readers will correct me). Rarely on his shoulder, and this is true especially when shooting indoor or outdoor while sitting, the camera often rests on his lap, or at least below his head, static and almost devoid of movements, it forges images that are less distant and thus more engaged with, and almost merged, with what he’s shooting. Wang Bing is crafting a cinema of immanence, an immanence made possible by the digital, and this is all the more true when he is filming people and their faces. It’s in these shots and scenes that the sound design gains its importance, the camera is gazing at the sisters from such an extreme proximity that we can literally hear their breathing, swallowing and sniffling, adding an element of almost tactile sonority to the movie. It is through this style and aesthetics that Wang Bing is able to convey the poverty and miserable destiny of the sisters, but at the same time their playfulness and innocence, everything here is depicted against the background of mountains, villages and shacks, deep inside the cold desolation of rural China, landscapes of absolute beauty and absolute indifference.