Mrs. Fang presents Wang Bing’s empathic cinematic practice at its most intimate in the face of a subject at its most opaque, with ‘subject’ referring to both a thinking, living self and a topic/matter. The film’s subject is the titular Mrs. Fang, whose family Wang got to know back in 2015. Footage of Wang’s ties with the family shot in 2015 in Maihui Village, near Huzhou, Zhejiang Province actually constitutes the film’s opening minutes. First, a sustained medium shot of Fang Xiuying standing, framed by a doorway in a nondescript space, not speaking, just being, her glance angled towards somewhere to the side of the camera. Then, an outdoor shot with a river in the background, with Mrs. Fang in the middle ground but walking diagonally from off-center to the right side of the frame and off-screen and whispering some indecipherable words as she passes by the camera. Lastly, standing inside what turns out to be her house, by what turns out to be her bed, while a TV set blares something that sounds like a drama; again, not speaking but simply being and reacting to what goes on around her, as when someone suddenly enters the shot from the right side of the frame to get a kettle from the stove. Cut to a close-up of a woman who is lying in bed while one hears off-screen voices speaking of her condition and pain.
Given the brusqueness of the cut, the spectator is prompted to wonder if this bed-ridden woman who cannot speak anymore and can hardly move is indeed the same Mrs. Fang of the previous shots. With the realisation that it is and the brusqueness of the cut, the film’s subject reveals itself: not simply death/dying but also the simultaneous sociality and privacy of it, the talking-about-it and quietness of it, in terms of space and behaviour, particularly in the engagement with/observance of Mrs. Fang by Wang/the camera as subjects themselves among others as she transitions to a plane of being different from those around her.
As one thinking subject facing another/others, Wang’s film alternates between tight close-ups of Mrs. Fang as she lays in bed (on her back or on her side) and medium/long shots of either the room that she occupies or the area that surrounds her house, including a river where locals frequently fish. Particularly in the case of the former, Wang and his camera are in the thick of it all, at times more so than the family members and/or neighbours who populate the room and are essentially sitting vigil at her death bed. Through close-ups, the film looks indefatigably at Mrs. Fang, expressing the intimate observation for which Wang is known. And such intimate observation is never invasive, pitying, or exploitative. For it rests on never losing sight of one as a human being above all, who in Mrs. Fang’s case is experiencing something that we all must inevitably experience, regardless of circumstances and/or condition(s). Though neither Wang/the camera nor Mrs. Fang speaks, a certain communication of empathy and dignity nevertheless takes place between them to which the spectator is made privy. And this communication is all the more crucial since the film does not provide any biographical details about Mrs. Fang until the very end.
Such meaningful communication between Mrs. Fang and the camera through the vigilant close-ups becomes more pronounced when set against the intermittent chatter that goes on around her in the room, just outside the house, and by/on the river, amongst family members and/or friends. Family members certainly attempt to communicate with her, but given that she no longer has access to words/spoken language, reactions are next to nothing. In truth, words/spoken language quickly become alienating, cold, insufficient, and superfluous in the film compared to what intangibly develops between the camera and Mrs. Fang – and by extension the spectator. That Wang chose to begin his film with no words uttered/exchanged seemingly, subtly affirms this point.
Sequences filled with words/exchanges increasingly sound disjointed, even out of place. Some of these sequences are shot outside of the house, with the intention to show the spaces in which Mrs. Fang had lived most, if not all, of her life. They include scenes of men young and not so young going night fishing or conversing at an outside table about childrearing and how Mrs. Fang’s grandson should be present. Most of these sequences, however, occur around Mrs. Fang at her bed, with family members issuing forth remarks such as ‘Let’s not skimp on the funeral dinner’ and on changes in her condition, where to bury her, and the sacrifices that the family has made to care for her. As they speak, they stand around Mrs. Fang at her bed and look at her. On the one hand, the exterior sequences can also be read as demonstrating how life must inexorably go on even in the time of a loved one’s dying. On the other hand, these garrulous moments, especially around Mrs. Fang, find the family members and/or friends looking at her in a manner that is manifestly different from Wang/the camera’s, which injects a strangely entomological note to the scenes.
Such a description should not be (mis)understood as a judgment. Wang is as interested in communicating silently with Mrs. Fang via the camera as capturing the communications that take place around her that are also part of the gradual process of her dying.
At bottom, there is something to be said about the empathic power of communication that can be generated between a subject and a camera, most notably one that does not involve words. This quality is in fact one of the principal, most formidable characteristics of Wang’s observational (documentary) cinema, as he usually forgoes any kind of factual information that would orient the spectator to think about the people in his films in one certain way – other than their humanness.
Mrs. Fang receives it UK premiere at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6. It will also be shown on May 14.