Dead Souls (死靈魂, Wang Bing, 2018)

Dead Souls posterFor 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)

Bitter Money (苦钱, Wang Bing, 2016)

Bitter money poster“Bitter Money” (苦钱, Kǔ Qián), according to director Wang Bing, is a phrase on the rise. It may be that money is rarely sweet, but this kind is particularly hard to swallow. Not only is the youth of China thrown out of its villages towards the inferno of city industry, living alone and away from home, but finds nothing more than exploitation, drudgery and false promise when it gets there. Wang’s trademark immersive detachment captures the frustrating inertia of the young men and women of the modern China who find themselves very definitely at the bottom of a heap and consistently betrayed by a failed ideology.

Wang opens in the country with a trio of hopeful youngsters about to leave everything behind for the bright promise of a better life for themselves and their families bought with city money. They board a bus, and then a train, and then interminable hours later arrive in Huzhou, the centre of the modern garment trade. The girls find work in a small workshop which, all things considered, might not seem so bad save that it provides only extremely low pay and offers no guarantees.

Shifting away from the recent arrivals, Wang’s camera locks onto the melancholy figure of 25-year-old Ling Ling who wants to borrow it as ally in confronting her coldhearted husband who threw her out after she complained about his beatings and is now so resentful that she’s stayed away too long that he refuses to talk to her. Ling Ling’s attitude to her unhappy marriage speaks volumes about the oppressive, patriarchal world of Huzhou where physical strength and dexterity are the only real currencies.

Lamenting her fate to coworker, Ling Ling affirms that domestic violence is just a part of life and believes that women have a duty to “submit” to their husbands’ rages – after all, “no woman can beat a man”. Her husband, Erzi, is proud and insecure. He views his wife’s behaviour as a slight against him and is resolved to be rid of her, loudly threatening her life in front of half the neighbourhood guys each of whom gets up and abandons their mahjong game after sensing that something is about to kick off. Despite the disdain with which the other men treat his overt violence towards his wife, Erzi is convinced his “manly” behaviour is impressive and thinks nothing of grabbing his wife by the throat in full view of Wang’s camera which remains a purely passive presence despite this ongoing threat.

Ling Ling, however, has few real choices left to her. She can’t survive alone in this environment and has nowhere else to go. In a pattern repeated across the nation, Ling Ling’s son is being raised in the country while she and her husband try to make a go of things in the city. Her major argument with Erzi is that he kicked her out with no money and won’t even give her anything for their son. Yet a later scene shows them together again, seemingly “happier” even whilst they to continue to bicker about money if in a less obviously destructive way.

Most of the other workers are not quite as trapped as Ling Ling, but are caught by a feeling of threat and desperation which encourages them to push themselves beyond the limits of human endurance while their bosses reap the profits. One minute the garment workshop is in the hole because they backed a product which isn’t selling, and the next it’s doing so well that the “slow” workers are being laid off in favour of the more “efficient”. It goes without saying that work in these small workshops is almost entirely unregulated with very few enforceable labour rights which means the boss is free to hire and fire as he sees fit. Some consider “investing” in pyramid schemes despite an awareness of their risks in the belief that they could beat the system if they get out fast enough while others resolve to give up and go home to the comparative comforts of the country.

One worker retreats into drink, only for his boss to tell him he’s holding back his wages for his own good which seems like a dubious claim at best. The workers regard the “big factories” with fear and awe, enemies of their current establishments but perhaps also offering better opportunities if also requiring a further fall into the industrial inferno. With little else on offer, “bitter money” is all there seems to be but its rewards are scant and its toll heavy. The teenage girl we first meet full of excitement and enthusiasm is eventually worn down, realising she’s worked all these months and earned barely anything. Wang’s detachment mirrors that of his protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent social system the ongoing violence of which it proves almost impossible to escape.