“Those that work the most don’t own anything”
Wang Bing on ’Til Madness Do Us Part and Three Sisters
Wang Bing, 47 years old, won’t take off his down jacket during the entire interview, which takes place in a Parisian apartment on a spring day. He answers the questions at length, in contrast to a former interview in 2003 at the time of the release of West of the Tracks, when he proved to be far more reticent. Modest, he’s amazed by this retrospective in Beaubourg – “in cinema circles, I’m still unimportant”. Nevertheless, he presents his astounding films at the most important festivals. In September, he was in Venice for ’Til Madness Do Us Part, a three hours fifty minutes immersion in isolation and in open air, in a psychiatric hospital in Yunnan.
Didier Péron: Why did you choose to film in the southern province of Yunnan?
Wang Bing: Because the disruption of the Chinese economy and society doesn’t really take place along the Yellow River – that’s to say, in the north, where I shot West of the Tracks ten years ago. The epicenter of cultural, human, political and economic change in China takes place along the Yangtze River in the south. China’s political economy begins in Shangai and gradually ascends along the river, passing enormous cities, like Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu. It traverses Yunnan, which for a long time was one of the most neglected provinces of the land and nowadays gets important development investments.
In Three Sisters, we see the incredible destitution of the farmers who live in the mountains. Where does this poverty come from?
In the film you see that the mountains are totally deforested. In former times, they were covered with tropical forests. When I talked with the eldest villagers, they talked about forests abundant with wild boars and snakes, luxuriant nature, resembling a mythical land destroyed by the hand of man. On the one hand, the aim of this deforestation was to gain agricultural lands. On the other, the wood from Yunnan is commercialised throughout China. Moreover, this zone is very rich in copper, which is very important for the production of coins. And, throughout the centuries, the wood was also used as firewood for the foundries. Most of the villagers in the film went away to work in the big cities; but often, they returned after some time. These migrant workers are the pillars of China’s economic development. They create the country’s wealth but will never enjoy even the smallest part of it. When they return, they are still as poor as when they left. Those that work the hardest don’t own anything. Historically, it’s the continuation of an enduring process: resources from upstream zones have been snatched away and used in downstream zones, and there is no cycle of redistribution like there is in nature.
However, redistribution was the political foundation of communism...
You can say that it has come to nothing. Communism has always preached the unity of proletarians all over the world, but in reality this union never came about. Instead, it’s the capitalists that have united. Money has traversed frontiers, which has led to a consensus of globalisation. The material interests of the richest people have gained importance at the expense of democratic values and principles of liberty.
There are a lot of scenes of meals, and one gets the impression that every plate is counted. Are there still food shortages today?
The famines of the past have gone, but foodstuffs are not very diversified because that particular family grows potatoes for the most part. If they want to eat rice, they have to buy it. When we went to the village, at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, we brought sacks of rice with us.
Watching the film, one can sense your fascination with Yingying, the oldest of the three girls, because of her autonomy, her silence, her rebellious beauty...
Yingying lives in hard circumstances. First, she was separated from her mother. Then, she was obliged to live several months without her father. And thereafter, she had to live without him and her two sisters. She has a difficult relation with the human community around her, her family and friends. But when she’s with the animals, you can feel her innocence, a certain human truth, very primal, very basic. I grew up in a village and, like her, I have been both farmer and shepherd until the age of 14. Every day, I worked on the fields, pulled out the weeds and fed them to the animals. Yingying has the perseverance of weeds: she grows on her own, has no one to count on.
How’s your financial situation, given the fact that your films are mainly screened at festivals and circulate in China only on pirate DVDs?
My films are made with very little financing and their exploitation doesn’t bring in much. Even the revenues from Europe are minimal. For example, I still haven’t received even a centime from the DVD sales of West of the Tracks (MK2 Editions). Sometimes, I receive royalties or screening rights to the amount of a hundred euros. The festival career of Three Sisters (Orizzonti prize in Venice, “Montgolfière d’or” at the Trois Continents festival in Nantes, Audience Award at DocLisboa) has yielded some rewards, which were often sums of money that I immediately used to finance the shooting of ’Til Madness Do Us Part. In 2010 I became ill, and I wasn’t able to work until 2011. Wang Yang, my partner, and I depended on loans from friends. The medical costs were high and I didn’t have any savings to protect me against that kind of situation. It was very difficult, to such an extent that having even 10 yuan in our pocket became a challenge.
Do you think China will socially explode, confronted with its difficulties and the aggravation of its inequalities?
No. Actually, if you look at the past, say the 20th century, you’ll see that disarray has succeeded disarray at a very steady pace. At the end of the Manchu dynasty, China plunged into total chaos. The economy exploded and people suffered from famines. Subsequently, there was the era of the Republic of China: three quarters of the population didn’t have clothes to cover their body nor food to survive.
Then the nationalists were driven out and we chose the communists. They proposed the ideal of an egalitarian redistribution of resources, which was very fascinating for the intellectuals. But utopia turned into totalitarianism and, once more, the country faced violent situations and extreme poverty. Nowadays, we have a totalitarian system that imposes the burden of brutal changes on one section of the population. We are in a situation where the economy is administered and economic competition is falsified. A potential social explosion is impossible without a political collapse. But I think that the Party has the means to avoid any such downfall and to guarantee the proper functioning of the economic chain.
Can you explain what you mean when you say that “the burden of brutal changes is imposed on one section of the population”?
The logic of our development is not like that of other countries. That’s why in the West one speaks about apocalyptic situations. But the Chinese population has a different view on things. To answer more directly to your question, I’ll take the example of real estate. For many years now, there is the phenomenon of a bubble of speculation on an extremely large scale. Everybody is aware of it, but still there are many buyers of apartments, many people who invest in this sector. Certainly, there is an actual need for housing, for offices. But a lot of banks grant credit arrangements that are very irresponsible. This superficial prosperity leads to an ultra-rapid augmentation of prices in the cities and it’s precisely the poorest people who are the victims of this inflation. Unbridled real estate exploitation enriches certain people but enfeebles many others.
Originally published as ‘Wang Bing: « Ceux qui travaillent le plus ne possèdent rien »’ in Libération, 15 April 2014.
Images (1) from Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)
Images (2) and (3) from San zimei [Three Sisters] (Wang Bing, 2012)