Chinese Reality #22: When Night Falls

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.

Today’s film:

When Night Falls (dir. Ying Liang)

When Night Falls (dir. Ying Liang)

Wo hai you hua yao shuo (When Night Falls)

2012. China. Directed by Ying Liang.

MoMA program description:

Through his four narrative features and numerous shorts, Ying Liang utilizes low-budget digital video and observational documentary techniques to produce withering portraits of ordinary Chinese caught in webs of injustice. Inspired by the 2008 case of a young man’s murder of six Shanghai police officers, Ying’s newest feature focuses on the killer’s mother, whose own life is thrown into disarray by both the brutality of the criminal justice system and the netizens who oppose it. Uncommonly attentive to its mostly mute heroine, the film is a quiet plea for humanism amid forces that breed its opposite.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

The facts of the case are well known; it’s no spoiler to say that, despite Wang’s efforts, her son was executed, and the scene in which Wang learns this is a quiet masterpiece of imagination. Her gestures—drinking from a teapot, tearing leaves from a calendar—have both a spontaneous nobility and a futile comedy that are as grand and as poignant as a scene from Griffith. “When Night Falls” is a work of memory, reconstruction, and empathy that blends a coolly analytical style with a fierce yet quiet passion. Its precise and intimate scope, its canny sense of refracted representations, turns its lightly idealized modernism into a powerful version of political documentary. No wonder the Chinese government is unhappy with it.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Part of what makes When Night Falls excel as a work of cinema, as well as a political intervention, comes from Ying’s harnessing of isolation and pathos for the express purpose of displaying, through spatial articulation and physical bombardment, what it feels like when the entire apparatus of the Chinese government bears down on a lone individual. A great deal of this results from Nai’s performance as Wang, whose slow, hunched movements through Ying’s deep, recessed compositions return a specific social valence to Antonioni/Tsai architectural imprisonment. One particularly fine shot finds Wang walking alone through a street towards the camera as an unseen loudspeaker trumpets the “splendid” Olympic Games. A woman bikes past her quizzically. The scene would be Kafkaesque except there is no paranoia, only bone-aching sorrow.

- Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope

Shot in long, static takes and constricting compositions — which partake of documentary-style realism while reinforcing the suffocating atmosphere of rank injustice, sorrow and paranoia — When Night Falls is a work of profound and vital humanism. Bravely and eloquently giving voice to those who have been forcibly silenced — the film’s original Chinese title can be translated as “I Still Have Something To Say” — Ying Liang has made an impassioned rallying cry for transparency and fairness in a state’s relations to its citizens.

- Andrea Picard, Toronto International Film Festival

Filmed in long static shots, When Night Falls is the most discreet and elliptical kind of political statement. Indeed, the reaction of the Chinese authorities to Ying’s film has been more dramatic than anything he shows on screen. Effectively exiled to Hong Kong, the director has now been warned he faces arrest if he returns to the mainland. His wife and parents have been harassed by the Shanghai police, while shadowy figures even offered to buy the film’s copyright in order to prevent its Jeonju premiere in April. The screening went ahead anyway. Beijing’s clumsy attempts at censoring a low-key indie feature have only boosted its global profile and political impact enormously.

- Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter

The emotional process of making the film was difficult. I struggled between the real Wang Jinmei and how Wang Jinmei was portrayed in this film, and between how real events had happened and how this film was depicting them. I had to—similarly to how a documentary filmmaker would—respect the truth of what happened and respect Wang Jinmei as a person. I felt that this was a moral duty. And yet what I also had to do, as most fiction filmmakers would, was to use images and sounds to help people relate to how Wang Jinmei felt. My cinematographer, Ryuji Otsuka, is a Japanese man who has lived in China for a long time and directed a number of documentary films there. He was constantly helping me find an emotional relationship between the camera and the character through color and lighting choices that could reflect Wang Jinmei’s situation. A fiction film can create its own expressionistic value. He, Nai An, and I found this value by putting together the images we had in our hearts of a mother.

- Ying Liang, interviewed by Aaron Cutler, Fandor Keyframe

For a filmmaker, the fact that the film has become a topic as such can’t be more embarrassing and unfortunate. What I have experienced and what I envision will happen in the future have made me to accept such a fact: “JUST CINEMA”, which indicates on the one hand that the power of cinema shouldn’t be over-evaluated, and on the other hand, cinema could achieve everything. I cannot totally agree with the latter opinion about the importance of cinema—- at least I don’t “simply”, “solely” or “absolutely” believe in such a statement. But there are people who insist that films could be so important that they would do everything to prove and guard this claim via public power and public instrument, which corners me, a negligible filmmaker, to a political or politicized predicament.

- Ying Liang, “Nothing About Cinema, Everything About Freedom.” 

View a timeline of Ying Liang’s troubles following the production and release of When Night Falls.