Filming the Dark Side of the Chinese Dream – and the Global Village

A Critical Reflection on Wang Bing’s cinema

(1) Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (Wang Bing, 2002)

Almost twenty years ago, Wang Bing gained international acclaim with his monumental debut, West of the Tracks (2003), a nine-hour documentary about the closure of Tiexi District, China’s oldest and biggest state-owned industrial zone located in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. For forty years, since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Tiexi was the heart of the country’s centrally planned economy, at its height employing over one million workers. By the early 1990s, however, resulting from Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform policy paving the way to a market economy, the district’s factories were running at a loss. In 1999, as a newly graduated filmmaker in his thirties, Wang Bing travels to the area with a small rented DV camera and stays for about two years, filming without permission a total of 260 hours of footage. From this material, he constructs West of the Tracks, a documentary in three chapters. ‘Rust’ witnesses the decline and abandonment of the plants as we follow groups of workers during their last working weeks. ‘Remnants’ centers on the mass eviction from public housing. And ‘Rails’ focusses on the train rails connecting the district. In the two decades since his debut, Wang made fifteen more documentaries, two fiction films and a handful of video works, each of them chronicling the lives of individuals living in China’s post-socialist society.

Wang’s practice can be identified by an underlying double “movement”. On the one hand, Wang’s documentary approach is intuitive and led by chance. Oftentimes chance encounters turn into protagonists and become decisive for the storyline of his film. He films without a prior plan, with an open mind and a willingness to learn about the world through the camera. On the other hand, his films are also highly structured (though situations are never staged). This takes place at the level of editing: In West of the Tracks, for example, the three-part structure allows him to start from a general picture of the factories in the first part to zoom in to the domestic space of a father and his son in the last. But also, on the level of filming: Wang’s long takes create a deep sense of place which allows him to articulate a tension between the characters and the space they are in. At various times, Wang has emphasized that he is concerned with creating a sense of space so that a clear image of time-space emerges in the viewer’s mind. In the second part of West of the Tracks for example, the grocery store serves as a central hub and informal meeting place where information is exchanged about the state of demolition, and tactics are discussed about how to make money under these new circumstances. Wang employs the store as a central stage from which paths emanate and from and to which people return. “The grocery shop functioned as a kind of ‘tree-trunk’ from which I was able to walk through the different ‘branches’ of the surrounding space.”1

Wang's double “movement” allows him to investigate how people subjectively relate to the material historical reality surrounding them. In other words, Wang is interested in the consciousness-in-development of the people he films. In ‘Rust’ the rhythm of the dying factory is outpacing and at odds with the consciousness of the workers, who speak their minds about dreams and broken promises and on several occasions discuss job insecurity, precarious housing and vulnerable pensions, and sundry other social uncertainties. In the waiting room of the nearby hospital, where the workers undergo chelation therapy to remove the lead poisoning in their blood, they gather to play the saxophone and sing revolutionary songs. In ‘Remnants’ the liveliness and playfulness of the main characters, a gang of young people, contrast sharply with the greyish, waste-filled streets of their neighborhood, soon to be cut off from electricity and water. The generational difference between these youths and their parents becomes painfully clear. One of their fathers observes trenchantly: “Zhu Bin and his friends will never achieve anything in life. They contribute nothing to society, nor do they resist it. They are slobs, good-for-nothings.” ‘Rails’ finally, is built around two main characters, Old Du and his teenage son Du Yang. Old Du has been working for the train company since time immemorial but today he struggles to make ends meet by picking and selling lumps of coal fallen on the tracks. When Old Du is arrested and released only weeks later, he tries to console his anguished son with words that are in painful contrast to reality; “But let me tell you: on this railroad, I am somebody.”

(2) Dead Souls (Wang Bing, 2018)

Wang Bing explores how people’s ideals and dreams relate to reality, how cinema makes it possible to affectively rethink one’s subjective relationship to society. Wang belongs to a generation of Chinese filmmakers who since the 1990s, but exponentially since the turn of the century thanks to the introduction of lightweight affordable DV cameras, document society from the bottom up, independently, (mostly) outside of the state-sanctioned film industry. These filmmakers, including Wu Wenguang, Duan Jinchuan, Jiang Yue and Zhang Yuan, are generally considered as a “movement” because of the artistic exchange and solidarity among them. They discuss the ideas about cinematic realism of André Bazin and Siegfried Krakauer and the practices of Shinsuke Ogawa, Frederick Wiseman and others and further investigate in different ways how cinema relates to reality – which results in a wide array of films ranging from personal to more public subject matters, from observational to performative or self-reflexive practices. Several scholars including Dan Edwards show how this movement evolved from a marginal underground practice to a full-fledged alternative public sphere in which alternative experiences of China’s rapid modernization were articulated than those put forward by the state narrative. Also, many filmmakers chose to reclaim history against official historiography by foregrounding memory and personal storytelling. Wang’s oral-history films, Fengming: Chronicle of a Chinese Memoir (2007), The Ditch (2009) and Dead Souls (2018), based on interviews with camp survivors of Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-1959), are an example of this. However, since 2010 the CCP has tightened its grip on the documentary film practice. Different scholars and filmmakers alert how targeted measures against certain films are made and that independent film festivals were closed, like the ones in Nanjing in 2012 and Beijing in 2014.2 As the conditions of making independent documentary cinema become increasingly difficult and dangerous, it is more important than ever to research the political role these films played and continue to play in their respective contexts within Chinese society.

But there is a second context in which Wang’s work circulates and generates meaning about the world: the global film and art scene. Wang has won prestigious awards at international film festivals (including Yamagata, Venice, Lisbon and Locarno). His work is supported by and largely depends on grants and assignments by film festivals and galleries in Europe. Much of his audience is located in Europe, where his cinema is praised for its radical and exciting formal innovation and its profoundly humanist gaze at people in precarious situations. The fact that people’s experiences of deep social inequality become visible to these audiences in these contexts is not necessarily critical, however, as the cultural critic Rey Chow teaches us. The visibility of subjects as victims and as protesters, Chow contends, is fully engrained in the economic and ideological workings of global capitalism as part of a teleological narrative of progress of human rights and democracy.3 Being programmed as an auteur alongside other auteurs, each of them likewise from “the non-West”, to expose respective social issues from their countries may reinforce this expectation and acceptance of seeing Chinese subjects as victims. There is the pitfall that visibility in this way (unconsciously) confirms the superiority of our own position.

Wang’s cinema avoids showing his subjects as victims, precisely because his films make no claim to “the real”. From his formal choices appears an awareness that cinema can never “access” or show reality directly, and “the real” has to be structured, reorganized, narrated through cinema. In Bitter Money (2016) Wang films the two-day and two-night journey by bus and train of two young women from the countryside to the city of Huzhou near Shanghai, where they hope to find jobs in one of the 18,000 privately owned sweatshops. These women are part of the rural-to-urban migration population in China – the approximately 300 million people who migrate to the cities to find work. By filming their invisible, “weightless” relocation, Wang visually takes the “floating population” (as they are pejoratively called to indicate their undocumented, precarious position of not being allowed to officially register and receive protection in the place they work and live) back to earth, giving them a face, a space and a temporality of their own. In the final scene of the film, workers load large bags of children's pants wrapped in smaller plastic bags in a small truck at nightfall. We learn that the buyer will soon come by. It starts to rain, and the bags shine like plump, alien masses in the orange glow of the streetlights. Being prepared for pick-up, these bags remind us that objects can move around freely, while the people of this place barely can. The film stops here, and the further trajectory of these commodities is left to our imagination. 

(3) Ku Qian [Bitter Money] (Wang Bing, 2016)

Even more pronounced, the short film Coal Money (2009) covers the full supply chain of coal. The film follows a group of coal sellers whose day-to-day job is to drive 100-ton trucks of coal from the Shanxi mines to the large port of Tianjin. Wang focusses on the commodity flow of this product but also on the human relationships that are systematically crushed under so much pressure specific to this informal trade. And the most recent video work in progress, Scenes (2020), Wang’s first film outside China, which was paused due to Covid travel restrictions, begins with a bustling scene in an industrial suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, where imported merchandise is chaotically carted away in trucks. The film, of which Wang showed a part at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in 2020, will be a diptych about African working-class communities in Guangzhou’s industrial district and the impact of the economic presence of Chinese infrastructure and technology on the lives of people in Lagos. 

Wang often provides very little information about the context in which a film is set; or he does so only at the very end in a closing title card. A “searching” attitude on the part of the spectator allows us to understand the structural causes behind seemingly singular problems without Wang confronting them directly. Three Sisters for example, which we could regard as the “negative image” of Bitter Money, tells the story of three young sisters who, as so many children from China’s rural areas, are left behind by their parents who work thousands of miles away in the textile manufacturing industry. Through the daily excursions of these girls searching for food, the crumbling state of their environment that is being exploited by commercial deforestation becomes apparent. And even in a film as “small” and intimate as Mrs. Fang (2017), which portrays the last days of an old woman dying of Alzheimer’s surrounded by her family members, the outside world breaks through as the spectator is confronted with another scene of death. We observe her sons and nephews electrofishing on the river that flows next to their house, a difficult and insecure practice in the polluted, overfished southern bank of the Yangtze River Delta. Once again, in a very tactile and poetic and at the same time clear-eyed way, Wang connects inside and outside, a personal battle for survival to a broader problematic of ecology and industry. Cinema, in Wang’s hands, has a structuring, reorganizing potential. It is a way of being and intervening in the world.

Some of the problems that China is dealing with – ecological breakdown, social disruption and an (internal) migration crisis – require a larger, historical framework. In the late Arif Dirlik’s words: “the integration of the PRC into global capitalism over the last two decades requires criticism directed at it also to attend to the structure of the system of which it is a part”.4 The consciousness about time and space that Wang creates through his aesthetics can play a critical role not only in a public sphere in places in China but also for spectators in “the West”. Wang’s cinema creates historically and spatially anchored images of place that can disrupt the apparent smooth workings of the “happy global village” and reveal the messiness and “constructedness” of globalization. In this way, his cinema can possibly counter two “grand narratives” about China’s position in the modern world. First, his cinema offers a strong response to the current mainstream discourse on “China’s rise” that advances a binary ahistorical worldview of China as an external/“other” and fails to recognize how long China has been embedded in global capitalism. Second, his cinema challenges the narrative produced by the Chinese state of China’s peaceful ascent as a world power (as opposed to the imperialism of European countries), a self-representation that allows the state to mask the many forms of violence inflicted on (Chinese) subjects. In this sense, the binary undertone of the title of this essay is misleading: Wang Bing is not the documentarian of the flipside of the Chinese dream; nor is he the documentarian of the state of global capitalism. His cinema urges that we confront the entanglement of the world and position ourselves (as cinema goers, as consumers) within it.

(4) San zimei [Three Sisters] (Wang Bing, 2012)

  • 1Wang Bing, Alors la Chine ?: Entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau et Eugenio Renzi, (Paris: Editions Les prairies ordinaires, 2014) 70 [my translation].
  • 2Dan Edwards, Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative publics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 153.
  • 3Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 48.
  • 4Arif Dirlik, Complicities: The People's Republic of China in Global Capitalism (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2017), 1.

Image (1) from Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (Wang Bing, 2002)

Image(2) from Dead Souls (Wang Bing, 2018)

Image (3) from Ku Qian [Bitter Money] (Wang Bing, 2016)

Image(4) from San zimei [Three Sisters] (Wang Bing, 2012)


State of Cinema 2022 / Wang Bing takes place on Sunday 18 December 2022 at 19:00 in Bozar, Brussels. You can find more information on the event here.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.