Death Be Not Proud: Bing’s Chilly Portrait of Death a Cultural Critique of Contemporary China
Celebrated Chinese documentarian Wang Bing scored a major coup with his latest project, Mrs. Fang, a portrait of an amnesiac woman on her deathbed in rural China, which took home the Golden Leopard at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival. Bing has long been considered one of the world’s premiere documentary filmmakers, celebrated for his epic nine-hour 2003 film West of the Tracks.
His latest is a bluntly distilled vision of death, his camera an unblinking witness to a life fading away as family members gather regularly around an elderly woman’s bed to comment superficially on her life and painstakingly wait for her passing. Often premiering his work on prolific festival platforms, the sometimes glacially inclined Bing scores his most distressing effort to date with this unflinching gaze at not only a natural passage of human existence, but the political climate which allowed for the specific circumstances of this titular woman’s slow, desolate departure.
In October 2015, we glimpse a few moments of Bing’s subject, Fang Xiuying, a Chinese woman in her sixties. A few wordless moments lead her to a room with two beds, a place she will eventually never leave as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s. The next sequence exemplifies a drastic change in her condition, as the elderly woman lies prone on the bed, sunken eyes staring out of a gaunt face and a body collapsing in on itself. Her son and daughter are amongst a small gathering of folks who appear in the room, commenting on her slowly worsening condition, patiently waiting for her to die.
Bing’s subject recalls the 2011 documentary from Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy, The Patron Saints, a deliberation on life in a home for the elderly and disabled. Death, of course, is an everyday and expected occurrence in this setting, a respite nevertheless denied Mrs. Fang.
The mention of medical care is barely addressed, and when it finally is as a meek suggestion from a family member towards the end of the elderly woman’s life, it’s dismissed as an unnecessary extravagance. Most of the family members remain undifferentiated, even as some of their roles and relations are openly discussed. To Bing’s audience, their noncorporeal presence registers at the periphery.
As Bing’s camera (sharing DP credit with Ding Bihan and Shan Xiaohui) hovers aggressively on the vacant, skeletal visage of Mrs. Fang (which in turn calls to mind issues not only of the subject’s approval but an overall helplessness of a human whose inattentive caretakers remain unconcerned with her perceived care), we define these subjects by their social cues. Comments about her degrading appearance seems to be a treasured topic, as is eventually the absence of a grandson, who several members blame as the reason for Mrs. Fang’s determination to go on living, unable to say goodbye without familial closure on all fronts. “She just lies there staring,” they remark incredulously, while we, in turn, stare brazenly into the depths of her blank expression.
A few moments of reprieve from this grotesque spectacle are granted, namely in the form of the activities which engage the villagers in their free time. However, these numbing fishing exercises and unenthusiastic card games unfold with trance-like precision, merely moments to mark the passage of time as we crawl along to the inevitable finish line. And for Mrs. Fang, we learn next to nothing, save for a brief intertitle before the end credits (following her death in mid-2016).
As she slowly sloughs off this mortal coil, Bing’s message, including the prominence of naming this documentary for his subject, suggests instead a cruel meaningless—all that matters of Mrs. Fang for our purposes is the process of dying. Alone, despite being surrounded by (supposed) loved ones, her death registers in this format as an equal non-event as the life predicating it, and Bing’s result is perhaps the most unromantic portrait of egress ever committed to film.
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival – Wavelengths Programme. 86 Mins.