Dead Souls

Dead Souls
Wang Bing, 2018, 495’

“Since I began researching the history of Jiabiangou State Farm in 2004, I have met and interviewed nearly one hundred survivors of Jiabiangou. We have become friends and confidants, and their stories and recollections have been crucial in helping me to understand the three decades that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Their words and their lives are a window to our shared history. Over the course of many years and many exchanges, I have come to know and perhaps even understand these elderly survivors of the gulag. [...] If we were to focus only on narrating past events, the survivors would become nothing more than talking heads, alienating the audience from the events being described onscreen. Because we exist in a different time frame, we cannot rely solely upon our imaginations to return us to the past, or to bridge the gap between past and present truths.”

Wang Bing1


“A small but stirring moment in Fengming occurs nearly two-thirds in, when Wang interrupts He Fengming to ask if it’s possible to turn on a light, as the room steadily and in real time darkened from evening to night. Similar moments occur in the extended video interviews that structure Dead Souls, while elsewhere time also moves forward in swift and unforgiving leaps, as several of the interview and testimonial sequences abruptly end with a text detailing the death of the individual we’ve just come to know. ‘Urgent’ may not be the descriptor one is quick to bestow on a 495-minute film, but unlike The Ditch, based on true stories narrated to author Yang Xianhui, and Fengming, which effectively invited He to recount episodes that had already been published in her memoirs, written records don’t exist for the lives and experiences of those we see in Dead Souls. Death, both past and anticipated, permeates the film; Wang shows the stark variances of that experience between – as per Levi – the drowned and the saved.”

Jesse Cumming2


“He does not pan across these bones to communicate a mass of them but instead finds frames through which to observe them, sometimes fixing for minutes at a time on a single bone or skull. There’s only so much these shots can do, there’s only so much information Wang’s camera can forensically and meaningfully absorb. But the concerted attention has meaning in itself. This shard was a person. This femur was a person. He wasn’t treated like one. He’s not even remembered as one. But look, please look. This was a person.”

Eric Hynes3

UPDATED ON 08.12.2018