Viewing Diary: The Ditch (2010, Wang Bing)

April 24, 2015









The Ditch (Wang Bing, 2010)

“Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend” proclaimed Mao Zedong in 1956, inviting his citizens to air any grievances with national policy and steer the Chinese Communist Party back on track through feedback. This became known as the 100 Flowers Campaign, a sort of nationwide spring-clean. Dissonant voices, newspapers, students, workers, religious groups, committees, wall posters, all had their say, encouraged to do so as civic duty. In practice however, the Chairman soon realised that criticism of the party and government – that is to say, of himself, for he was the party – was not to his taste. In a typically slippery U-turn, Mao now claimed the campaign had been a ploy to draw out socially dangerous elements like snakes from the grass, and all who’d accepted the official invitation to offer feedback were to be punished. The backlash saw over 400,000 so-called ‘rightists’ and ‘enemies of the state’ sent for ‘re-education’ in labour camps between 1957 and 1961, no matter how small or well-meaning their comments had been.

Wang Bing

The 100 Flowers Campaign itself, and the wave of arrests it sparked, have previously featured in Chinese cinema – in Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994) and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993) for example. But the actual misery inside the labour camps had never been shown. That is, until The Ditch, the 2010 film by independent Chinese director Wang Bing.

Wang is among the foremost documentarians and filmmakers to have emerged from China this century. His stature owes much to his mammoth 9-hour long debut, chronicling a decaying factory town, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002). As evidence of its almost-immediate entry into the canon as a seminal film, it came in at number 17 on last year’s Sight and Sound Best Documentaries poll, and was voted 202nd greatest film ever by that same publication’s 2012 poll. Wang’s film-making ethic and philosophy is built around a desire to observe the world and immerse us into his vision of it. He roots his documentaries in the everyday experiences of his characters, which he unassumingly documents in long, unstylised takes.

Probing Chinese history has also long been a major preoccupation for Wang. In Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) he depends, for the three-hour duration, on the fascinating oral history provided by the elderly He Fengming recounting the tumultuous decades she lived through. Tie Xi Qu itself was haunted by a forsaken past, with its portrait of the ruin ravaged on an industrial town, formerly a pride of Maoist workers’ China but now a graveyard of factories. While in the 16-minute short Brutality Factory (2007), his first foray into fiction film-making, Wang re-enacted the persecution and humiliation of a ‘struggle session’, a form of public trial-by-bullying all too common during Mao’s reign.

Which leads us to his most direct exploration of history yet: The Ditch (2010), also his first feature-length fiction film. What’s interesting is how it allows the intersection of a performed, scripted narrative with Wang’s own documentary tropes. There’s no score, no artificial lighting, no voiceover, and it’s filmed with the same handheld digital camera aesthetic, propelled by understated movements and compositions, which provide a stark beauty to his previous films. The Ditch is set in 1960 and depicts a few weeks in Jiabiangou, one of the forced labour camps, near the Gobi desert. A fiction film it may be, but Wang undertook years of factual research and gathered testimonies in person from the few remaining survivors (over 2500 of Jiabiangou’s 3000 inmates perished on site, most of famine). For even greater authenticity, it was filmed on location, secretly – there never was any hope of a film dealing with such a taboo topic obtaining official permission, so Wang circumvented that avenue altogether.

Most recognisable of all in terms of Wang’s style is the unflinching documenting of quotidian life within the camp. Through a handful of core stories and characters, the repetitive, futile nature of their work, the meager lodgings, fatigue, mental exasperation and most of all hunger, are revealed. This was the time when one of the worst famines to have hit mankind was setting in as a result of Mao’s disastrous economic policies, and these wretched prisoners were among the last in the country to have food trickle down to them. They are served no more than a few spoonfuls of gruel, on a good day. Sheer hunger in its purest state is shown; these ghost-like starved men resort to eating rats, picking grains out of vomit, and even cannibalism, just to keep drifting on survival auto-pilot.

But the film is truly affective because it cements this desperation through the stories and backstories of these men, adding a sense of dignity to their battle to survive. One ex-academic is here only for a matter of semantics; his suggestion that the terminology ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ should be altered to the more inclusive ‘dictatorship of the people’ was enough to deem him a dangerous reactionary. In the paranoid nightmare of Maoist totalitarian China, one word out of turn was enough to get you rubbed off the map, and rip apart a whole family.

We see this when another man, slowly dying, feels he won’t survive in time for his wife’s visit and begs a cell-mate to hide his body so she can take it away for burial when she arrives. Later, the corpse is found by the warden and buried in the desert, before the wife arrives, only to be devastated by her loss and frantically search for his unmarked shallow grave amid the horizon of dusty wasteland. Her harrowing pain borders on melodrama but is undercut by the film’s documentary-realist style. Documentary techniques have been used for fiction films at least since Italian Neo-realism, but Wang brings this approach into the digital age. The austere naturalism, and the striking HD look especially, are not usually associated with recreations of the past.  The time and place are brought back to life cinematically, in an originalvlcsnap-2015-04-24-14h33m31s57 way, and it makes the pain all the more tangible, in part because it’s not dulled down by clichéd tropes.

One question hovering over all this however, is does China itself want to hear about this painful past? Do they want to be reminded? According to Wang’s own pessimistic prediction, it will be at least another 30 years before his film is allowed to be shown in his home country. All he can continue to do is cast light (and his trusty DV camera) on this darkness, providing some form of memorial for those who struggled through it, as well as a topography of the scars running across his nation’s history.

Viewing Diary: Illumination (1972, Krzysztof Zanussi)

April 10, 2015

Illumination (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1972)

Illumination was the third feature directed by Krzysztof Zanussi, Polish physicist turned filmmaker; “I loved physics” he quips, “but it didn’t love me back, so I turned to cinema”. Its main protagonist is a physics student in search of absolute truth and knowledge, the idealistic Franciszek (played by Stanislaw Latallo) who with his round-framed glasses and docile grin looks not unlike Waldo from that series of children’s books. The film covers roughly a decade of his life, through which its principal themes are no less than the nature of knowledge and life, and the physical and temporal limitations Man is subjected to.

Right from the opening, as Franciszek undergoes a physical examination before graduating with his high school diploma, there’s a frontal shot of him wearing nothing but his boxers, standing before us like a slightly more bookish, less self-confident, 1972 version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. This is how Zanussi embarks us onto his odyssey. In a collage style that feels very much of its time (filmmakers as varied as Godard, Makavejev, Oshima and Matsumoto among others also experimented with similar hybrid styles at around the same time), he fuses together at least three different categories of footage: the acted narrative, Franciszek’s ten-year quest and search for illumination before realising absolute answers don’t come as easily as he’d hoped; secondly, actual documentary interviews with real scientists and physics students discussing their fields, their lives, their hopes, which chime and echo with the fictional Franciszek’s own predicament; thirdly Zanussi includes scientific explanations (Franciszek delivers one of the theory of the big bang as an aside, for example), illustrations, diagrams and graphs. Sure Franciszek struggles along the way, but all these inserts also remind us that for a relatively insignificant species in the Universe, we’ve not done too badly in uncovering some of the mysteries of Nature.

Add to this the often atonal, hyperkinetic musical score and the occasional ultra-rapid impressionistic montage, and certainly we have a film made in a kind of filmic language that we don’t quite see anymore today. It is loose, often improvised, and as Zanussi admits was made without reliance on a screenplay. Art is not as rigid and fixed as science, so Illumination does not have to make sense like a set of equations. It takes us along into its flow, and there is so much any of us should be able to relate to in Franciszek’s story that we should be taken into its collage of images, sounds, insights and interviews. I sure was anyway.

Franciszek soon realises that, despite his lofty poetic ideals of truth and knowledge, he is bound to material laws like the rest of us. The spiritual, the soul, whatever one wants to call it, may well exist but there is no mind without matter. When he takes up employment doing psychiatric research in a hospital, he observes the fine invisible line that makes seemingly healthy bodies stop functioning mentally. One scene in which he witnesses an open brain surgery patient’s moods altered by electrodes touching his cerebrum hits home the inextricable link between the physical and the spiritual. This is what I meant earlier by physical limitations. Whenever Franciszek longs to be elevated towards illumination, he is soon brought back down to earth and its everyday worries of bills and financial worries. When his girlfriend becomes pregnant and he convinces her to keep the baby, that doesn’t soothe matters either, as his futile attempts at night-time studying turn into sleepless nights looking after their young son. This turning point is also one of the many big decisions Franciszek must make in his life, throughout the film, and which only reinforce the irreversibility of time, and the tyranny of choice.

He had to choose a topic of study for university, even though his grades at high school were good all round. For his final year of university study, he is then forced to choose one narrow field to specialise in, even though he does not yet feel ready to know which direction he wants to orient himself in. And these choices build up incrementally until with each choice he has burrowed deeper into the trail that will make up what he calls his life. As one of the scientific asides about the peculiarities of the time dimension reminds us, time goes in one direction only, and there is no way back. No wonder then that by the end, after a confrontation with death as a mathematician friend loses his life due to a brain tumour, and a spell away from science seeking answers in a remote monastery, Franciszek feels trapped by time. “I need to make up the time I lost. I need to live intensely and do what would take 5-6 years in the next 3-4” he tells his doctor.









In quantum physics, one of the more offbeat ideas that follows from the theory’s mathematics is the so-called ‘multiverse theory’, the idea that every choice we make branches out into a parallel universe for each of the potential outcomes. We flick a coin, there’s one universe where we get heads, and an alternate parallel one where it’s tails. A similar principle was exhibited by Erwin Schrödinger in his famous thought experiment with the cat that is simultaneously alive and dead until we check. It’s the act of actually carrying out the observation (or of making a choice, whatever) that collapses all the many, even infinite, possibilities into one definite outcome. Franciszek could have chosen to do anything. Any of us have an infinitude of possible options at our disposal. Franciszek discovers this not just in the choices he has to make in his scientific career, but also in his lovelife. He loses one potential girlfriend, and all the alternate parallel life he may have lived with her, and goes down another path. He is obliged to orient himself in one specific direction, when an infinity of others were also possible, and this because of the never-changing direction of Time’s arrow. This is what I mean by the temporal limitations on Man.

But one of Franciszek’s colleagues succinctly suggests a more fruitful approach of looking at it. Ignore the infinity of possibilities lost and of the regrets that come with that, and cherish the single one you had to choose. After much soul-searching it seems at the end Franciszek is closer to applying this lesson, which is easier said than done. A clearly highly gifted young man in a repressive society, he is hopefully that bit closer to having found a productive place within the world. Illumination may tell us that pure enlightenment may be out of reach but all the myriad of thoughts, ideas and truths it resonates in just one hour and a half remind us that we as humans are capable of much too.

Note: This wonderful film is available on DVD from Second Run here, a release and company I can’t recommend enough. One of the extras accompanying the DVD is a short film made by the son of actor Stanislaw Latallo in 1996, telling the tale of the man without whose superbly believable performance as a scientist (not a profession the movies have a long history of getting right) this film would not be the same. Tragically, it also recounts how he lost his life just two years after making the film, in 1974, in a mountaineering accident.

Viewing Diary: Profondo Rosso (1975, Dario Argento)

April 8, 2015







Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975)

David Hemmings plays an English pianist in Turin who witnesses the brutal murder of a German medium and becomes drawn into an obsessive quest for the killer, based on visual clues and cues. What happened to the painting he saw in the victim’s flat only to find it vanished five minutes later? What message is hidden on the bathroom wall of a second murdered woman? What does the picture revealed when he scrapes a wall in a mysterious villa have to do with the murderer? Argento provides answers and a narrative closure of a sort, but clearly he is more interested in the metaphysical journey on which Hemmings’ pictorial-based investigation takes him.

The connection with the Hemmings character in Antonioni’s Blow Up, 9 years prior, instantly jumps at us. Just like Brian De Palma, another baroque, mannerist filmmaker, would make his own variation (Blow Out) a few years later, here Argento takes that seminal film as a springboard for his own enquiry into the link between looking and reality. Unlike Antonioni though (and more like De Palma), his cinema is one that blends genre (the giallo, murder mystery, horror) with appropriated elements of modernist cinema.

Argento, ardent cinephile, throws in a host of film references (from Antonioni to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) as well as nods to instantly recognisable paintings: note the scene just before Hemmings’ witnesses the murder, in which he roams a set divided into conjuring both Giorgio De Chirico’s antiquity-inspired surrealism and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. A visual summary of Argento’s dual status making films categorisable both as populist and as art cinema perhaps? But also of the central question in his filmmaking: how does one keep making films when the weight of cinema (and art) history weigh upon us?







The answer: with plenty of gusto and flourish. Cinematic prestidigitator that he is, Argento dazzles with seemingly impossible POV shots, sound effects, a deliciously baroque sense of artifice, fetishistic close-ups, zoom-ins and crop-outs. He even has the daring to show us the killer within the first 20 minutes, knowing that the sleight-of-hand performed by his mise-en-scene will make us completely miss that. And the prog-rock Goblin score is pretty magic too.

Viewing Diary: Brick and Mirror (1965, Ebrahim Golestan)

April 1, 2015

Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965)

Ebrahim Golestan

Ebrahim Golestan. The name may not be that familiar to many, but he can legitimately be called the godfather of the Iranian New Wave. No Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and all those others who later made Iranian cinema one of the most artistically exciting, without first passing via Golestan. (Shameless but not altogether irrelevant plug: those wishing to learn more about the Iranian New Wave can read my series of posts about it, starting from here.)

Born in 1922, into a comfortable upper-middle class existence in Southern Iran, Golestan found his place as an influential intellectual and writer of short stories in the 1940s. Somewhat of a polymath, he was also a photographer and fascinated by the potential of his other passion, film-making. Possessing the means and advantageous connections, in 1956 he created his own film production company. In 1958, he made the short documentary A Fire, his first film. Its lyrical, visually-oriented approach to its subject of an oilfield fire makes it a precedent to Werner Herzog’s fascination with such flames in his Kuwait doc, Lessons in Darkness (1992). By the early 1960s, Golestan’s early shorts have captured attention (and prizes) at the Venice Film Festival, becoming the first internationally acclaimed Iranian films. The nascent artistic conscience of Iranian cinema was being formed by Golestan.


Forough Farrokhzad

Just as seminal as his own shorts, if not more so, is a mesmerising 30-minutes long film he produced and collaborated on: Forough Farrokhzad‘s The House is Black (1963). This unflinching documentary depicts a leper colony through the taboo-defying gaze of Farrokhzad, one of the greatest Iranian poets of the 20th century. It was a blueprint to the future Kiarostamis, and it’s hard to imagine his masterful Koker-set films without this masterpiece having been made.

Farrokhzad also happened to be Golestan’s lover, to much rumour and scandal within Iran. Tragically she would lose her life in a car accident in 1967, aged just 32, and The House is Black was her only incursion into film-making. Today, she is best remembered for her sensuous poetry but her impact on Iranian cinema, both with her own film and through her influence on Golestan, should not be overlooked.

In 1963, Golestan decided to start work on his first fictional film, a logical step for such a prolific writer of short fiction. That film would be Brick and Mirror, based on his own screenplay, and which I watched for the first time a few weeks ago. It was the first serious attempt at a feature-length art film in Iranian cinema (as opposed to the tired formulaic melodramas and so on), but its worthiness goes far beyond its inaugural status. It could sit alongside the canonised arthouse masterpieces of the 1960s, had its geographical and industrial constraints not banished it to relative oblivion.

Brick and Mirror begins as the story of Hashem, a Tehran taxi driver, and average guy, maybe of around 30, set to be put in an unusual situation. Driving for fares one night in the city — vividly evoked through shots of the neon-lit streets and the rhythms of its hustle and bustle — Hashem finds a baby abandoned in the back of his cab. Attempting to track down the runaway passenger, his chase ends with him lost in an eery, dissipated house, where a peculiar woman greets him with inexplicable, mad mutterings. This ghostly house sequence, rendered through expressionistic lighting and fragmented editing, could be right out of some atmospheric horror film. Hashem, baby still in his arms, is left perplexed and makes way to a Tehran bar, his regular night-time hangout.

Brick and Mirror follows an episodic approach, each new scene veering it towards a different mood and register, all accomplished by Golestan with technical assurance and confidence.  After Hashem’s cab on the streets, and the creepy house, next we enter the bar with Hashem. The frame is now packed with people, all chatty, eccentric characters. The camera tracks deftly around enclosed spaces, conveying a lively ambience similar to Scorsese bar-rooms out of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. It’s a brilliantly evocative scene. We feel present in this room where all types of Tehran’s dwellers meet, be they taxi drivers, intellectuals, drunkards, gamblers. All are eager to give their opinion on what course of action Hashem should take. Some tell him to head to the police station, others maintain the baby can only be a trap laid by a would-be accuser who’ll frame him for kidnap. This whirlpool of dissonant voices leaves Hashem even more confused.

Later, the film takes another turn with its second, more personal, half. Hashem’s relationship with his lover Taji, whom we’d briefly met in the bar scene, takes centre stage. The lengthy central scene, entirely set in Hashem’s apartment, depicts the couple deliberating over what to do, while also attempting to rekindle their intimacy. She, full of doubts about her future with this man who refuses to commit, sees the baby as a potential symbol of a new start for them. She becomes desperate to keep it. Hashem though, is consumed by the paranoia endemic in Golestan’s portrayal of Iran under the dictatorial Shah — already hinted at through the distrust of the police. Hashem is terrified of even leaving the lights on, lest one of the neighbours spy on him. The reasons for his paranoia are never articulated, which imparts a Kafkaesque flavour on proceedings. Previously our straight-man guide into a strange world, Hashem grows increasingly stubborn and obnoxious, his paranoia preventing him enjoying a moment of tenderness with the woman who clearly loves him.

It slowly looms upon us that the film is not heading for the glimmer of hope Taji believes the baby to be, but towards a breakdown, suggesting the impossibility of a future within a broken society that reflects the insanity of its dictator. These moments of failed intimacy and mis-communication between Hashem and Taji are not far removed from similar scenes in the ’60s work of Antonioni and Bergman — I keep using European references only because Golestan was such an avowed Europhile in his artistic influences. But I believe we can also perceive Farrokhzad’s indirect influence. Golestan’s affair with the great poetess, still ongoing at the time, is bound to have had some impact on his artistic mindset when writing and filming Brick and Mirror.

Farrokhzad herself was deeply personal and candid in her art. Having married young in a patriarchal society, she later felt forced to divorce her husband in order to emancipate herself as a woman and poet. However this meant abandoning her young son in the care of his father. The resulting guilt of this choice is something Farrokhzad wrote about several times in her verses, some even directly addressing her estranged son, begging for him to one day forgive and understand her. It’s hard not to be reminded of Farrokhzad’s attempts at soothing the pain of her own sacrifice by the motif of the lost baby here, and Taji’s primal desperation to keep it. Taking the thought further, the scenes between Taji and Hashem, who like Golestan and Farrokhzad are unmarried and seem to have something to hide, may even draw something from Golestan’s experiences, but this is a bit too speculative.

The Brick and the Mirror-004

In any case, the emotional torment between Taji and Hashem reaches its raw climax in the final act. Tellingly, at this point the film hands over to Taji. It is her who leads us into the orphanage where it ends. Shot in a real orphanage, and punctuated by slow tracking-shots of young orphans rattling on their metal cribs and close-ups of their faces, the scene is almost wordless and brings Brick and Mirror to a slow, haunting halt. It recalls both The House is Black, and, to use another comparison to European masters, the early essay-films of Resnais and Marker. Through this sombre, solemn atmosphere, Taji understands this baby is not a miraculous saviour for her relationship, and that all these dozens of abandoned babies are just as lonely, helpless and in need of a saviour as she. This realisation is perhaps what explains the film’s title, taken from a line attributed to the Sufi poet Attar: “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror”. Taji has gathered enough experience to see the bitter truth in a figurative ‘mud brick’.

Golestan would only direct one more feature after Brick and Mirror: a satire symbolically critiquing the Shah, The Ghost Valley’s Treasure Mysteries (1974), based on his own novel. He moved to England in the 1970s, where he still resides today, now in his nineties. The tangible shadow he cast on the subsequent development of Iranian cinema consists almost entirely of this one film then, in which he founded a type of visual language and artistic excellence to be matched. Brick and Mirror blends naturalistic with intimate, along with a fair dose of surreal (the madwoman of the start, an odd charlatan Hashem encounters whom he later sees on TV). It feels related to the contemporaneous French New Wave and the Italian Modernists while still firmly anchored in an Iranian context. How many more films like this, which should indisputably belong to the canon of world cinema, are lost and forgotten today I wonder?


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