Chinese Reality #15: Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (dir. Wang Bing)

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (dir. Wang Bing)

Today’s film:

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

2003. China. Directed by Wang Bing.

MoMA program description:

The most monumental achievement in the Chinese new documentary movement to date, Wang Bing’s three-part, nine-hour portrait of an industrial wasteland made the top 100 in the 2012 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Once the heart of state-run heavy industry, Tiexi district, in the northeastern city of Shenyang, is now a scene of decay, as economic reforms, bankruptcies, relocation, and demolition have left many factories empty and entire communities jobless. Filmed over two years, the film is a testament to Chinese documentarians’ commitment to a deceptively simple film technique, one that patiently peels away everyday surfaces to reveal rich layers of history and culture.

Read Director’s Statement by Wang Bing (from the 2003 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, where it won Grand Prize)

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

The film depicts a panoramic scene of the decline of China’s state-owned factories following the failures of its planned economy. Landscapes of desolate factories and portraits of people living in difficult predicament reflect a poetic sorrow.

Jia Zhangke, ChinaFile

Going beyond the tropes of the Sixth Generation, West of the Tracks nevertheless defines the apex of a trend that developed in the post-Tiananmen ‘90s: independent art films produced in China which received praise abroad but were shown neither theatrically nor on television in their home country. However, due to the proliferation of illegal DVDs and the use of the internet, West of the Tracks has had an immense influence upon Chinese filmmakers. Wang Bing helped redefine the use of small, portable digital cameras in an epic context, especially through his reinvention of the tracking shot: simply walking about while carrying his camera. An intimate extension of the body of the filmmaker, the camera keeps him offscreen, but tantalizingly close to the frame.

Berenice Reynaud, Cinema Scope

In making this film he never had enough money to buy his own camera, and he did his editing initially at night in local television facilities, to which a friend helped him gain unofficial access.[17] His own precarious status as an underground filmmaker may well account for his sympathy for the people of Tiexi District and, in turn, their trust in him not to abuse their images and stories…

Li JieWest of the Tracks — salvaging the rubble of utopia

The film makes a strong case for DV filmmaking. Bing’s cinematography is entirely handheld and he prefers to shoot from amidst the workers and from their eye level. Only Digital Video could have provided this material flexibility for Bing. He religiously performs the role of a historian, capturing passages that would otherwise be relegated to the level of footnotes. He neither exploits the grief of the people he’s filming to create his art nor does he try to analyze their situation and make an overarching statement. He merely lives among them, staying in the sidelines with humility and standing witness to the downward spiral they are thrust into. This way, Bing’s film makes a strong case for cinema itself, taking it closer to what it out to be and what it was devised for – to capture and save reality from destruction, negligence and falsification.

– Srikanth Srinivasan (aka Just Another Film Buff), Unspoken Cinema

[Part I:Rust’s fascination with the choreography of Man and Machine gives way to moments of intense beauty that at times recalls the structural films of sculptor Richard Serra… [Remnants,] the second part of Wang’s trilogy offers a multi-generational portrait of a community faced with the sudden terrible certainty of its own demise… [Rails,] the closing chapter of Wang’s ambitious trilogy is arguably its most poetic and emotionally powerful, a portrait of the last supply trains that continue to deliver ever dwindling quantities of raw stuff to the crumbling factories.

Harvard Film Archive

In his approach to the question of the unexpected pro-filmic event, Wang Bing demonstrates a sensibility subtly different from that of his predecessors. This distinctiveness is illustrated by one particular moment in “Rust” that has achieved significant critical attention. Wang is filming a maintenance worker in one of the factories recounting his life story, most particularly the disruption to his education that resulted from the Cultural Revolution. Suddenly, one of his co-workers enters the room and announces that the plant will shut down in two days: the news has just been broken to them by the factory manager. As Lv Xinyu points out, Wang has caught on film the precise moment at which the factory received its “death sentence.” Yet the director’s explication of this sequence is also of interest:

This moment is extremely important. Although when we see it now we are prepared for it, at the time of filming there was no way to know [it was coming.] You [the viewer] and he [the worker] experience the moment together; you will remember it very clearly.

Wang suggests that the significance of this scene – one which is arguably pivotal to the entirety of West of the Tracks, in that its consequences play out for the documentary – derives from its contingency. Its utter unexpectedness, both for those on screen and those watching, ensures its lasting power. Here, the unpredictability of the pro-filmic is no longer a problem or a challenge; instead, it is a quality to be harnessed by the documentary filmmaker.

Luke Robinson, “From ‘Public’ to ‘Private'”. In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

The fate of individuals is struggling within the larger fate of the nation. The nation, buried under the allegories of vast rusty steel and material, has its prosperity and decline decided by powers beyond its control. The struggle of individuals contains the strength of life itself. Wang Bing believes that, if by such destiny one gets to understand oneself and reality, then one might be awakened even in the middle of this destiny – and awakening is the premise for redemption.

Lv Xinyu, “West of the Tracks.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

Wang Bing’s nine-hour elegiac epic is a strange echo of the Lumière brothers’ much shorter Leaving the Factory (1895). Instead of workers happily coming off their shifts, the three parts of West of the Tracks trace the death of an iconic Mao era heavy industrial zone and show people leaving forever. Smoky, snow-covered, and dark, it made me think of the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) as I sank into it and became immersed in its thoughtful nostalgia.

Chris BerryChinaFile

This epic 9-hour deliberation on the decline of massive industrial manufacturing in northeast China compels the viewer to confront the ghostly ruins of giant machines and deserted factories. The soon-to-be-unemployed workers’ uncertain future evokes the nightmare rather than the glory of socialist legacy and human civilization. The slow-moving train that punctuates the film bears witness to a science fiction-like world where even the machine is abandoned in an industrial wasteland.

Zhang YingjinChinaFile

This is like a ghost story, a glimpse of the phantoms who haunt a world where inexorable economic forces have declared that human beings and the communities they build to give shape and meaning to their lives are no longer important. The existence of the film and Wang’s herculean effort in giving it such a rich and elegant form provide an irrefutable counter-argument: it is the human rather than economic values that give life its meaning.

Kenneth George Godwin, Blog Critics and Rough Cut

For Wang, there is always the need to locate human figures in space and to allow the audience to locate itself in relation to that space. This double process requires time, and it might be said that the subject of Wang’s films is mainly this, how space becomes a screen of time, and how the paths of people through the space—across, toward, in, out, or simply dwelling within (as in 2007’s sublime Fengming, a Chinese Memoir)—write duration.

Chris Fujiwara, Cinema Scope

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