Though Chinese Portrait is his first documentary film, Wang Xiaoshuai is no stranger to what can be called documentary realism. Particularly in his early films of the 1990s such as The Days (1993, his directorial debut), Frozen (1997), and So Close to Paradise (1998) but also even in what is arguably his most internationally known work Beijing Bicycle (2001), Wang is known for an immersive, observational, and intimate realist aesthetic paired with an explicit concern for the day-to-day struggles and pressures experienced by those living on the margins during China’s massive transitions from Mao-era collectivism to free market capitalism. Though his work in recent decades has shed the grit that characterises his 1990s output, Wang is marked irrevocably by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre (the same year in which he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy) and even into the present time he has continued to tackle such struggles and pressures in his filmography, including the issue of migration. Take, for example, his so-called “Third Front” trilogy of Shanghai Dreams (2005), Eleven Flowers (2012), and Red Amnesia (2014) that is sprinkled with autobiographical details, events, and memories. On the one hand, Chinese Portrait does deviate from all of his previous work due to the degree to which it is stripped down to the bare essentials of what cinema does — record movement and thus time — that not only charts Wang’s cinematic trajectory but also nods to cinema’s beginnings. On the other hand, Chinese Portrait is anything but an improvised work and is actually a very carefully constructed portrait indeed of his country, from the perspective of the peripheral, minimal, mundane, and thus a critical one at that.
On the surface, the film seems to be composed of merely random one-shot-one-scenes, as if one were thrown back in time to the birth of the cinematograph: miners, garment workers, fishers, factory workers, passengers on a train, a teacher and his elementary school students in the countryside, a university classroom with a handful of students, a group of young women posing for a painting outdoors, scenes at the beach, people dining outdoors and the bustle that goes with the process, with no authorial narration or captions. With an immobile camera to boot, the film is certainly reminiscent of the Lumière brothers (and to a lesser extent, the Edison) actualities of the 1890s and their tableau-like manner of capturing faces/bodies, movements, and moments in various indoor and outdoor settings around the world.
If movement and time denote what Wang’s camera captures and presents to the viewer on a basic level, they also refer to the intertwining of the historical and autobiographical, much like his other films, through the choice of shots and their arrangement. On closer inspection, at work in the film is a historical chronicle (or portrait) precisely of the impacts of China’s socio-economic reforms from the 1980s to the present as well as socio-political and -cultural issues and/or events that continue to resonate today. However brief, the aforementioned list of some of the film’s one-shot-one-scenes in the order of their appearance is a microcosm of the film’s thematic and structural movement. And in this context, the film’s opening credit sequence of a one-shot-one-scene of miners standing and looking into a mine entry lasting several minutes acquires immense significance. Unsurprisingly, labour is a prominent theme of the first third of the film, which gradually gives way to leisure — or does it?
The intertwining of the historical and autobiographical more specifically begins with the original Chinese title of Chinese Portrait, which can be translated to “My Lens.” Explicitly inserting, or including, himself in the film’s fabric weaves the historical and autobiographical all the more tightly. On several occasions throughout the film, the one-shot-one-scenes are of Wang himself not only in different locations but also at different points in time (the film was made over a period of seven years): on a moving train; against a ruin; in front of a CCTV building wearing a mask while everything else is shrouded in smog. Moreover, Wang looks directly at the camera and stands still, as if posing for a photographic portrait. Most notably, Wang’s first “self-portrait” early in the film is on a sidewalk, with Tiananmen Square poignantly in the background. Seemingly innocuous and even tourist-like, this one-shot-one-scene in fact literally locates his cinema in the post-Tiananmen Square protests and massacre period.
The weaving of the historical and autobiographical goes hand in hand with that of the collective and individual, especially in the way in which Wang composed his one-shot-one-scenes with his social actors from all across the country like his “self-portrait” portions of the film. For some one-shot-one-scenes, consisting of one person or two dozen, the social actors return the camera’s gaze intently and steadily without moving. For others of groups and crowds in public settings, he has only one or two social actors return the gaze and remain still while the rest around them go about their business as if a camera were not present. Such a tension between movement and stillness within the latter specifically and throughout the film generally can be considered an interesting play between still and moving photography, in keeping with the film’s nod to early cinema. However, imperceptibly, this same tension also becomes one between recognition, acknowledgement and anonymity, disregard. If the nation’s historical movement has been from hardship to modernisation and prosperity, Wang makes sure to remind the viewer that it has not been smooth, or even prosperous, for many. In this context, Tibetans, Muslims, and Mongols are a marked presence in the film. In another vein, a most striking one-shot-one-scene is of artist Liu Xiaodong painting a portrait of a group of young women. What would otherwise be an idyllic picture in itself becomes a multilayered image (perhaps even critique), for in the background of this “idyll” are post-Sichuan earthquake ruins.
The same can be said for the entire film: what may appear to be an idyllic, amusing travelogue-like work and throwback to early cinema one-shot-one-scenes is at bottom a complex audiovisual portrait of a movement and time whose repercussions are still being measured and made sense of by the likes of Wang.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.