Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Blank Slate for Our Own Thoughts and Prejudices – Wang Bing's Man With No Name

The man with no name in his subterranean dwelling, a scene from Wang Bing's eponymous documentary.

Wang Bing's new documentary Man With No Name is an intriguing companion piece to his recent debut drama The Ditch, so it's fitting that the two films screened alongside each other at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. Both works depict the lives of marginalised men living in the ruggedly parched landscape of China's northwest, but where The Ditch dramatises events from sixty years ago, Man With No Name is an observational documentary set in the present.

The film's style harks back to the early days of China's independent documentary movement, when directors like Duan Jinchuan, inspired by the “Direct Cinema” of Frederick Wiseman, pursued a purely observational approach that eschewed voice-overs, music and obvious directorial intervention.

While an observational aesthetic remains central in most Chinese documentaries, these days most filmmakers adopt a more mixed – and I think more honest – style that often includes interviews and interactions with their subjects. In this instance, however, Wang Bing has completely masked his own presence, as his camera silently follows the nameless man of the title across a year living in the desert-like yellow earth of China's northern interior. I say “in” because the man quite literally lives in a cave dug into the soil, where he appears to lead a completely pre-modern existence, employing only basic tools and cooking rudimentary meals over an open fire. Without the man's plastic containers and the brief glimpses we catch of passing cars and the odd passer-by there would be little to indicate that the setting is present-day China.

Our first glimpse of the man sees him emerging from a hole in the ground, clad in rags. We follow him through a series of seemingly random activities that include rummaging around in other caves, collecting manure off village roads, and spreading soil on the ground near his home. Gradually it becomes apparent that he is cultivating a small plot outside his cave, and as the weather warms up a crop sprouts. In the final scene we see him once again collecting manure in the brown autumn landscape, continuing his cycle of primitive subsistence farming. The handful of other people we see enter the frame appear oblivious to his presence. The nameless man lives by himself and talks to no-one. In fact he remains silent for the entire film, never acknowledging Wang's camera or the director's presence.

Wang Bing's Man With No Name.

The man's lifestyle is certainly startling – it's hard to believe that anyone could be leading such an insular, pre-technological life in a nation undergoing such a headlong rush into the future. Watching Man With No Name in the high-rise concrete jungle of downtown Kowloon only added to the film's surreal edge. Whether the man's ascetic existence is to be pitied as a life of unimaginable poverty, or a riposte to modernity's unsustainable materialistic ways, is left to the eye of the beholder. In fact, Wang's refusal to take up any position in relation to his subject was, for me, the film's biggest weakness. Apart my discomfort with the basic conceit of “pretending the camera isn't there,” purely observational documentary often brings to mind a comment Godard made about US director Richard Leacock back in 1963: “Leacock is busily hunting down truth without ever asking himself... what truth he is after.”

Put another way, Direct Cinema's pure attention to surface detail often ends up being, well, rather superficial. Who is the man with no name? Ultimately, the camera tells us very little and renders him as an object, one more piece of debris in the little cave that he lives in. He has no history, no subjectivity, no voice of his own. Yet he must presumably be capable of some level of communication for Wang to have persuaded him to appear in the film.

Questions left hanging can provoke a thoughtful engagement with the images and story on screen, but when the viewer doesn't get past the question of who we are looking at, the uncertainty becomes frustrating rather than productive. For me the film would have been much more interesting if we could have heard how the man got there, his thoughts about his situation, how he regarded the surrounding villagers, and what his attitude was to Wang's camera.

It's instructive to compare Wang's film to Zhao Liang's Crime and Punishment, which also takes a observational approach, but shows the police subjects and their suspects in a range of situations that allow them to stand as complex individuals, with equally complex relations to the institutional framework within which they work. Zhao makes a point without being didactic, and still leaves a broad interpretative space for the viewer to occupy. In contrast, Man With No Name leaves us with little more than a rather prosaic look into an unknown man's daily routines. Beyond a sense of amazement (wow, someone is still living like this) and intrigue (who is this guy?), the film is so wide open to interpretation it becomes almost meaningless. Perhaps this is Wang's point. It's easy to read the man as a victim, for example, but since we learn nothing about how he came to live this way, such a reading says more about the viewer's attitude to modern life than the man himself. That still leaves Wang's human subject as little more than a blank object, however, onto which we project our own thoughts and prejudices.

1 comment:

  1. It looks like Wang Bing put a lot of time and effort into "Man With No Name" as well as "The Ditch". I haven't had the chance to see either, but I can imagine they are both very well put together. It's interesting that he chose to make the character a blank object like he did. I think that it's very smart of him to leave the subject's image up to the interpretation of the viewer because a deeper relationship is developed between viewer and piece when the viewer can project his views onto the character.
    Alexi |