Speak, Memory

Ed Halter on Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir

Wang Bing, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, 2007, stills from a color video, 186 minutes. Left: He Fengming. Right: He Fengming with her husband and child.

WANG BING HAS a predilection for the documentary as an epic form. His film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) spends over nine hours with laborers at a declining mining concern in northeastern China, and his latest project, Crude Oil (2008), a visit inside the everyday grind of workers on an Inner Mongolian oil field, clocks in at a daunting fourteen hours. These video monuments, which he has presented both theatrically and as installations, speak to the colossal scale required to envision even a fragment of China’s millennia-deep history, its imperial geography, or its billion-plus people.

At a mere 184 minutes, Wang’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) is brief in comparison but nonetheless communicates its own sweeping saga—though it records just a few hours in the life of one elderly woman in her cramped apartment. The film begins with its subject, He Fengming, shuffling across icy pavement to her modest flat, as Wang’s camera hovers patiently behind her. Once settled inside, He narrates a harrowing testimony spanning five decades, from her idealistic youth as an eager Communist Party journalist to the drawn-out hell of starvation in labor camps, where she spent years being “rehabilitated” after she and her husband were spuriously denounced for right-wing tendencies, accused in Maoist “struggle sessions” of fronting a “little black clique” of counterrevolutionaries that never existed. During the first hour of her account, the sun slowly sets outside, gradually bathing the interior of her home in darkness.

He’s body barely moves as she recounts her tale within a static fixed frame, but her storytelling proves gripping; Fengming stands alongside first-person precedents like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) and Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2004) in its ability to wrest powerful effects from the deceptively simple setup of a lone raconteur. Filled with paranoia, thought-policing, and opportunistic struggles for power, the world that He describes could have been lifted from Orwell or Kafka, burning with a tragic romance at its center. In the face of forced collectivity, the love between He and her husband, she says, “was all the more precious because it belonged only to us.” The same consequence applies to He’s life story, which she has evidently honed over the years into a finely wrought autobiography, retaining memories a new China would rather forget.

Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York December 5–7. For more details, click here.