Zhili, 150 km from Shanghai. In this city dedicated to textile manufacturing, young workers come from all the rural regions crossed by the Yangtze River. They are in their early twenties, share dormitories and snack in the corridors. They work tirelessly to be able one day to raise a child, buy a house or set up their own workshop. Between them, friendships and love affairs are made and unmade according to the seasons, bankruptcies and family pressures.
Antoine Thirion: The film seems to unfold as a sequence of 20-minute episodes. Why did you choose to edit it this way?
Wang Bing: I had to find a balance between the multiple workshops and the various groups of workers, who were sometimes very far apart. I couldn’t edit five minutes from one location, then five minutes from another, the end result would have been far too disjointed. So I decided to construct segments of around 20 minutes, each one set in one location and open to a follow-up. The first part of the film has nine such segments, the last one a bit longer, when Xiao Wei leaves Zhili and heads back home to the country. This seemed the best way to avoid too chaotic an edit, while keeping a balance between the different locations. Formally, it’s simpler and more natural. Sometimes, very intense things do happen, but they are concentrated in a few minutes, sometimes even in a few short exchanges.
One of the things I’m happiest with in this film is the spareness of the narrative. In each story, a few words are enough to capture the character’s defining feature, and then the story moves on. On the surface it looks as if life is just unfolding naturally, with no big tragedies, no big dramas; but then you notice this very strong undertow. And when you look closely at what’s at stake for each individual character, and you add up all these lives, you realize that under the casual banter, we’re seeing the destiny of a whole generation in the balance.
Film and traditional narratives often seem to pick an individual out of the multitude of lives around us, like one fish out of the sea, and turn this person into a hero meant to stand for the world. I didn’t want that spotlight effect. I prefer to see all these characters swimming together in the ocean of everyday life, and try to capture something in each of them to suggest the personal difficulties they’re facing and the essence of their individual story. All these workers are living out their lives, often passively, but silently, without comment.
I also wanted to make a film out of independent, self-contained modules, that would allow viewers to make their own connections and build their own narrative, rather than foregrounding any one character.”
Wang Bing in conversation with Antoine Thirion1
Pedro Costa: Every time I see one of Wang Bing’s films, I feel that I should probably have more confidence, or I should trust a little more some things that I don’t trust. I still need a lot of retouching or rhetoric to make a film. I need what we call “fiction,” or something like that. I’m not saying that Wang Bing is just doing documentaries – that’s a word I don’t think we like that much – but I need to organize reality in a way so that it still very much belongs to the rhetoric of cinema… I need a lot of things from cinema, [whereas] each time I see one his films, it’s freer, I think, than mine are. I’ve always said that reality helps him a lot, and reality bothers me a lot, it creates obstacles and difficulties that I have to solve and jump over. So I build, I start building. I do much more complicated things.
Wang Bing: Yeah, it’s interesting. But my understanding of what Pedro has just said, my explanation is that his point of departure, his starting point for making a film, is not the same as mine. He has behind him the whole background of European cinema – there’s a very strong, rich tradition common across Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese [filmmakers], and other countries – and that is very different from the Chinese filmmaking environment; the whole idea of how you start with a seed, that leads to the growth into a tree, that becomes the film.
When Pedro talks about his need to sort of cinematize reality, to me, that is something that flows naturally from his film education, his film background – his conditioning, if you like. Whereas my film background, what conditioned me, there’s no similar tradition in China; the only tradition is a Communist filmmaking rhetoric. I have no historical basis provided to me for a starting point. There’s a traditional rhetoric, if you can call it that, in China, but that is one I can’t accept. I have to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. So the difference [between us]: it’s almost as if when Pedro Costa makes a film, he is starting from the North Pole and I am starting from the South Pole.
In other words, the obstacles and challenges Pedro describes that he faces when making a film, I don’t think they’re so much his personal challenges, due to him himself, but they’re placed there by history, and by the demands of that conditioning. I can be more relaxed in my circumstances, starting from scratch, because I don’t have to consider or take into account any older forms; I don’t have to follow an idiom or do anything that responds to a certain cinema tradition, I can freewheel. At the same time, while I seem more free and vigorous for that reason, there’s also a naivety to my films, there’s something childish about them, compared to these films against a traditional backdrop. Pedro’s films are made more powerful by their cultural connection to a long filmic tradition.”
Wang Bing and Pedro Costa in conversation with Annabel Brady-Brown2