The documentary films of Wang Bing present a veritable mosaic of peripheral, alienated perspectives across the various regions of China, from the northeast and northwest — where he shot his debut work West of the Tracks (2003) in Shenyang province, Coal Money (2008) in Shanxi province, Crude Oil (2008) in Qinghai province — to the southwest — where he shot both Three Sisters (2012) and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) in Yunnan province. The use of the word ‘mosaic’ is very deliberate here: ‘mosaic’ generally refers to an image or pattern resulting from the arrangement of small pieces of hard material such as glass or stone. While Wang’s films are anything but ‘small’ in terms of scale, they are indeed composed of ‘hard material,’ in his case, the socioeconomic changes that are rippling throughout the country in the course of marketisation; the shifting/displaced labour force (and often rendered expendable) that accompanies these changes; and the unraveling of familial/community bonds and industries as a result of and in reaction to these changes, displacement of bodies, and poverty. At the same time, Wang’s films are ‘small’ insofar as they detail the living-everydayness of his social actors as well as the intimate link between bodies and environment that is the backbone of their living-everydayness, which maintains their dignity as individual selves encountered — not exploited or judged— by his camera.
But Wang does not spell out such thematic ‘hard material.’ Instead, he allows it to bubble up to the surface (of the images) in the course of immersing the viewer in the spatio-social everyday of his social actors, in all its frankness and even irony, with his signature patient yet probing observational style of filming and editing. With Three Sisters, Wang presents a work on the enforced shifting (or disintegrating) compositions of family, as directly experienced by the eldest sister Yingying, in relation to socioeconomic hardships. With a mother nowhere to be found, a father periodically absent, and younger sisters accompanying their father to the city, she is the sole constant presence tied to a single environment among her family members and therefore the film’s physical and thematic backbone and point of view.
The film can be divided into roughly four sections. Individually and collectively, the sections can be read as a mark of the constant s(h)ifting of emotional bonds and economic woes experienced by Yingying, directly or indirectly. The film’s first section introduces the three sisters — ten-year-old Yingying, six-year-old Zhenzhen, and four-year-old Fenfen — and establishes the rhythm of their everyday in the poor mountainous village of Xiyangtang. The rhythm is improvisatory and loose, as a day begins with the sisters at home. Fenfen mentions their ‘daddy’ when she and Zhenzhen are playing, but he is nowhere to be seen. They appear to be left to their own devices in an environment that consists of a poorly lit one-room-is-all-the-rooms, with its dirt floor, darkened walls, and rudimentary furnishings and tools; an outside that is no better, with disheveled rocks and dirt paths, and a water tap just outside their door for drinking and washing their faces or clothes; and an aunt’s house in the same village. While going to the aunt’s house serves the real function of eating meals for the sisters, from the film’s perspective it presents a stark contrast to their seemingly abandoned situation. The aunt’s house is not only a bit bigger (though no less poor) and with a television set but also contains an intact family of parents and children, with a steady food supply. We also meet their grandfather (Sun Xingliang) there.
For the eldest Yingying, her everyday is also about being both sister and surrogate parents to Zhenzhen and Fenfen. In between watching over them (tending to a cut, checking for lice, putting them to bed), her day is spent on chores, in exchange for meals provided by the aunt’s family: cutting grass, washing potatoes and lugging them back to the aunt’s house, stomping on potatoes for animal feed. Other chores await at home, such as washing clothes and/or shoes. Later in the film, if not at school or doing her lessons independently, she also chops wood, picks pinecones, and helps her grandfather put the family’s flock of sheep and goats out to pasture.
To best capture the sisters’ everyday and environment, Wang keeps the camera largely at the level of their height. In fact, throughout the film the low level camera privileges the perspective of children, even when adults are in the scene. As the film progresses, the low level camera becomes not just a technical decision but also like a tacit gesture of solidarity, or at the very least empathy, in the midst of the sisters’ uncertain everyday and destitute environment.
The father’s return marks a second section of the film and a shift in the sisters’ everyday, providing glimpses into not only the history behind the family’s fragmentation but also the family dynamic. Such history comes out through conversation between Shunbao and his father Xingliang while they prepare a meal, but only obliquely: ‘Til death do us part; what a joke,’ Shunbao scoffs. Shunbao also speaks rather easily and freely (and affectionately) with his two youngest daughters as they sit together at home. In contrast, Yingying sits across from them, separate and silent. Her separation and silence express all too clearly her emotional isolation and her family’s economic hardships, and their connection to one another, without the need for words. (Significantly, too, the most that Yingying ever speaks or expresses a sense of perspective on things in the film is not by her father’s but by her grandfather’s side.)
It is precisely through Yingying’s separation/isolation and silence that Wang documents her family’s/village’s socioeconomic straits and develops the thematic issues of familial fragmentation in an affecting, nondidactic way. The film’s third section of Yingying left behind in the village is therefore an ironic centerpiece. Though living with her grandfather, the foreign presence of the camera ironically becomes the sole companion of her days and secondary witness to her situation outside of herself, not out of pity but empathy. Some of the film’s most memorable and poignant scenes are simply of Yingying alone at home, in half-shadow — in some instances, like an ironic spotlight on her life — walking/half-running across fields, or collecting pinecones under a clear blue sky, with the camera devotedly behind or beside her.
With each succeeding section, the notion of family is further undermined, through no fault of her or her family’s own. And with each succeeding section, the bond between Yingying and the camera grows strong though the two never exchange words. By the time Shunbao returns to the village not only with the younger sisters but with two new figures in the film’s fourth section, one cannot help but side with Yingying and her emotional distance from her family, even possessive of her solitude and the possibilities that it affords in terms of subjectivity and study. In this regard, Three Sisters finds Wang’s camera perhaps at its most actively empathetic. The camera, as a physical and technological companion to Yingying’s everyday, frequently isolates her in shots throughout the film — at times even through close-ups — which over time has the effect of it being more in tune with her unspoken feelings than her (absent/new) family members.
Three Sisters is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.