For his eight hour exploration of China’s painful past, Wang Bing borrows a title from Gogol’s famous 19th century Russian novel which aimed to poke fun at the various flaws in contemporary cultural norms. “Dead Souls” (死靈魂, Sǐ Línghún), in Gogol’s case, referred to serfs which had passed on but were still included in a landlord’s register of property and therefore liable for taxation (the novel’s protagonist, a corrupt former civil servant, is keen to “buy” these “virtual” serfs as part of a mysterious money making scam). Wang Bing’s aims are about as far from comic as it’s possible to be, but he too is intent on unmasking national hypocrisy in ensuring the testimonies of the hundreds of men and women who survived Mao’s “Anti-Rightest Movement” of the late 1950s are finally heard. The alleged rightists became “dead souls” in more ways than one – having lost their party affiliation they no longer quite existed in the intensely conformist post-revolutionary world where they found themselves betrayed and abandoned by an increasingly oppressive regime that eventually robbed them of their humanity.
In 1956, the Communist Party had announced the Hundred Flowers campaign in which ordinary people were encouraged to voice their innermost thoughts about the state of the revolution. After a short lived period of liberalism, the Hundred Flowers campaign was exposed as a ruse to root out so called reactionary elements. The Anti-Rightist Movement which began in 1957 rounded up those who had offered up constructive criticism of the party as well as capitalists, intellectuals, and just about anyone with a vaguely questionable history, and packed them off for “re-education” at various labour camps throughout China.
Mostly offered through lengthy direct to camera monologues, Wang presents a first hand account of the Jiabiangou Labor Camp from those who managed to survive (around 500 of 3200 internees) after famine and disease took hold. Many of the alleged “rightists”, most “rehabilitated” after the Cultural Revolution and subsequent economic reforms, affirm that they have no idea what it is they did “wrong” but are convinced that it was petty jealousies and personal resentments that landed them in hot water rather than a political dispute. Many found themselves at the mercy of an official they’d already reported for incompetence or corruption, disappeared for reasons of expediency or convenience. Others were told that their re-education was for the public good and they’d be back in a matter of months in their old job with their old salary, or else their family could come live with them on the utopian farm that would arise from their efforts in the camp.
Of course, the reality was very different and the harrowing stories recounted by the now elderly men with a mix of retrospective black humour and deeply held resentment speak of death on a mass scale, starvation, walking corpses, and rampant disease. With famine intensified by the failure of the Great Leap Forward, food supplies grew increasingly short while numbers of “rightists” in need of re-education only increased thanks to a kind of quota system. Those most likely to survive were the ones who made themselves the most useful – the physically strong, the tenders of horses, and the kitchen staff who could survive by pinching food when no one was looking. One strangely gleeful old man calmly recounts how he finagled his way into the kitchen and then set about pilfering the best of the supplies for himself with the help of the other cooks (seemingly without remorse), while another man recounts spotting a similar practice and taking the greedy to task by reminding them that the food they were scoffing came out of someone else’s mouth. Those who survived did so either because their families were able to smuggle in food for them, or else they were lucky.
Breaking away from the rigorous, sometimes oppressive interviews, Wang wanders the grounds of the former camps now levelled in an attempt to erase their existence but still painfully visible in the arid, scarred landscape. Bones litter surface as if squeezed out of the earth while human skulls rest eerily in the middle of barren land. A group of survivors attempts to identify remains through stones placed atop the bodies of those who died when those left behind still had the strength to bury them, but fail to read the faded names while their attempt to erect a monument to those who lost their lives to a malicious failure of government ends with only more destruction. What they were not permitted to do Wang accomplishes if intangibly in creating an indelible monument to human suffering through the first hand testimony of a persecuted generation finally able to break the long decades of silence and give voice to a truth still so painfully hidden.
Short clip from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)