The Chinese film expert Shelly Kraicer tells a story about a recurring daydream: he wanders down a narrow Beijing hutong alleyway and finds himself at the 'Chinese Indie Director's Discount Emporium'. Here, you can pick from shelves of long-haired drifters, bleak rural landscapes, sweeping long takes – and a discount deal on shaky DV camera footage. There is no special wisdom to Kraicer's cautionary tale, though it does suggest that a certain formula has taken hold in Chinese independent cinema over recent decades. Since the 1990s, documentarians such as Zhao Liang and Wu Wenguang have dished out uncompromising perspectives on their country's social fractures, from rubble-strewn landscapes caught between destruction and construction to new floating populations of migrant workers. But their favoured use of the small digital camera as a tool for rapid-response, clandestine filmmaking and the relentless chronicling of the dreary lives and labours of China's underclasses, can easily make for clichés.
It was therefore with slight wariness that I entered 'Experience and Poverty', a solo show by the pioneering Chinese documentarian Wang Bing held at Beijing's Magician Space in December. The exhibition, curated by Yang Beichen, hosted seated screenings of two recent films by the director: 15 Hours (2017) and Mrs Fang (2017). The former is a minimally edited, 15-hour continuous shot of the factory floor of a clothing manufacturer in Zhejiang province. The film's forbidding duration mirrors the drawn-out monotony of the workers's long shifts, spent hunched over their cutting machines. If anything, the scene is a tragic update of the old socialist realist aesthetics that celebrated physical mastery over technological might. There is little to signal the presence of the filmmaker and nothing in the way of a soundtrack or additional lighting to temper the factory's brittle, fluorescent ambience. But, if the detached observation of 15 Hours demonstrates Wang's affinity with the practices of direct cinema, his camera is neither still nor objective. It takes on a life of its own; as a roaming, distracted eye, its attention caught by the whirring of sewing machinery, carving low across the factory floor as it traces the movements of a new subject.
Originally commissioned for documenta 14, Mrs Fang is a 90-minute profile of the last days of Fang Xiu Ying, confined by Alzheimer's to her bed in a Zhejiang village. Wang had originally befriended Fang's daughter while shooting another film in the region in 2015 and returned a year later on hearing her mother had a week to live. Wang's film cuts quickly to a portrait of her elderly human body exposed in its weakest, most uncomfortably intimate state. His camera lingers close over Fang's glazed face, her skin pulled against the skull, and then across her bedroom in which family members have gathered to openly discuss funeral plans and pass comment on Fang's draining life: 'sinking slowly, like a boat in the river'. The film also includes scenes of illegal electrofishing, following Fang's brother-in-law as he casts his nets under cover of night. Wang narrates the sense of destruction and poverty in China's rural south: once famed as 'the land of fish and rice', contemporary Zhejiang is a region in which social welfare and natural resources have leaked away.
Wang was born in Shaanxi province, in China's northwest, in 1967. Even his birthplace, he claims, set him apart from the mythological, epic gaze of China's 'fifth generation' filmmakers: 'I didn't look at the Northwest in the exotic way that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige did in their film Yellow Earth ,' he said in a recent interview. Wang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy at a time when millions of workers in state-owned enterprises were being sacked, making way for a new form of class apartheid in China. He arrived in the smokestack Teixi District of China's industrial city Shenyang in 1999 and, over three years, recorded 300 hours of footage with a Panasonic mini-DV camera lent by a friend. It would become his seminal nine-hour trilogy West of the Tracks (2003) which documented the laying off of workers, the demolition of their housing and the breakdown of the socialist social contract. West of the Tracks opens with a now-famous tracking shot of the district itself, with Wang's camera positioned on a small goods train as it weaves through the factory buildings in a blur of snow: a wandering cipher for the filmmaker himself.
Where West of the Tracks caught a landscape in the process of vanishing, the last decade has seen Wang journey from rustbelt to border region in order to reveal the true costs of the new China. For instance, 2012's Three Sisters follows young siblings in a village high in the Yunnan mountains, who are left to fend for themselves when the mother abandons the family and their father is forced to search for work in the city. Wang's camera often wavers, struggling to keep up with the children as they set about their day feeding livestock, gathering dung and potatoes, caught in impoverished labour at a tender age.
Wang's permanent presence on the international film festival circuit - last year he won the Golden Leopard at the 70th Locarno Film Festival - separates his films from the activist-led, investigatory strains of Chinese documentary making. (Consider the fury that Ai Xiaoming and Ai Weiwei breathed into Chinese social cinema in their investigations following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.) But what if we move out from the granular detail of each of Wang's films to its macro-landscape, from the country's disillusioned north-east to its impoverished south-west and across historical time in the process? We begin to see, the film scholar Elena Pollacchi argues, a 'cinematic journey' that traces a sharp counter-geography to the 'China dream'.
The subjects, practices and tools of Wang Bing's documentaries may be more easily anticipated these days. But the same is not necessarily true of our experience with them. While Wang's submission to a cinema of slowness purposefully creates difficult encounters in the film theatre, the art-gallery viewer is not governed by the films's durational demands. Next month, Wang's films will be shown at Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum (alongside work by Hito Steyerl and Ben Rivers). Here the intention is to display Wang's long-durational film works - including 15 Hours and Crude Oil (2008), a 14-hour study of crude oil extractors in Qinghai province - as a constellation of multiple projection screens. These films will construct a landscape that the viewer can 'edit' themselves by shifting attention from screen to screen, as Jaap Guldemond, EYE's director of exhibitions, tells me. It might be a more fragmented, fleeting sensation but, like Wang's lens, the gallery frees us to linger and wander, and this newly liberated mobility draws attention to the unseen threads between his films. As we begin to idle in the space and sound of Wang's dystopias, can we also glimpse landscapes of possibility resonating beyond?
The 'EYE Art & Film Prize' exhibition at Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum will be on view from 24 March through to 27 May 2018.
Main image: Wang Bing, Taang (detail), 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist