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21.03.2018
The Great Leap Backwards

Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (Wang Bing, 2002)

Wang Bing’s overwhelming West of the Tracks [Tiexi qu] presents us with the panoramic spectacle of progress collapsing. Industry folds and empties its plants; workers lose their jobs and their benefits; people are idle and demoralized, and then they are unhoused, and they demolish their own former dwellings to cash in on their value as scrap; people scavenge among gargantuan ruins that loom like the remnants of a forgotten civilization of giants. It is every twentieth-century mural depiction of the struggle for the good life-socialist or capitalist-viewed in reverse. It is as if the film were being run backwards, or like the last lines of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “And we, who think of happiness ascending, / would with consternation / know the rapture that almost overwhelms us, / when happiness falls.”1

The death of industry is not news, of course. It has been going on for half a century – my own life’s course was determined by the abrupt end of the textile industry in my native town when I was a child. And over the decades its pace has increased. Think of, in no particular order, the abandonment of Detroit, the fall of the aerospace industry in Southern California, the defeat of the British miners’ union, the vast factories of the Ruhr turned into parks, the hazardous sport of exploring empty shells of plants worldwide, the numerous looming wrecks everywhere that are too expensive or dangerous to demolish, with their real estate too poisoned for rebuilding. Assuming that progress exists – that at worst it has been subject to a temporary interruption – is by now such a well-established habit that unmistakable evidence to the contrary can be casually overlooked on a daily basis. But then we in the West have historically had the experience of change occurring gradually over time, so that it could come to seem organic and inevitable, and a process hard to dislodge. China, however, was press-ganged into industrialization, just as most major social changes there over the course of the past century have been forced through suddenly and brutally. Maybe that is why when industry fails, as it does here, in the Teixi District of Shenyang, it seems to take most of the tangible aspects of modern life along with it.

Wang Bing’s film is at once epic and intimate – epic because of the sheer scale of the constructions, and the long, straight railroad tracking shots Wang employs to render its geography; intimate because of its focus on the daily life of the last workers and the soon-to-be displaced. Wang’s film is not journalistic in that it does not show us, for example, the bureaucrats who made the various life-altering decisions, and it doesn’t show the rest of Shenyang – the bourgeois neighborhoods, shops, hotels, highways. There are few motor vehicles in the film, few paved streets, seemingly no structures built since the 1950s. The chief signs of modern life, which is to say the only things the people can afford to consume, are clothing and pop songs. In something over nine hours, Wang brings us inside the world he is chronicling so thoroughly that, if we watch it in one go, we are apt to lose track of what things outside are like.

You begin to wonder what his shooting ratio might have been – whether, that is, he shot for so long that his subjects forgot that he was there. Maybe he stood there for weeks and months with his camera, not shooting until every so often something struck him. Maybe the concept of being filmed was so foreign to his subjects that they accepted his activity without complaint or self-consciousness. Maybe his personality was such that he soon blended in with the surroundings. In any case, Wang manages to get an enormous amount of footage of people with their guard down, displaying frustration or drunkenness or jealousy or pettiness or sentimentality or even, as in one extraordinary sequence near the end, breaking down altogether. Maybe his subjects have had their emotions so thoroughly abraded that any amount of self-protection would seem foolish, like putting on airs. As a consequence, there is very little emotional distance between them and us. When this is combined with that strange phenomenon that occurs when watching very long movies with subtitles – you begin to imagine that you are actually understanding speeches in a language you do not know, rather than reading skeletal translations – the immersion is complete.

Immersion is certainly Wang’s method. He gives us the lay of the land, introduces us to the dying factories one by one, thrusting us into the small talk and sniping and grousing of the break room as well as the labor – seemingly at once outsized and primitive – of the factory floor. The general process is repeated again and again, from plant to plant: copper plating, copper smelting, lead plating, zinc smelting, zinc plating, and so on. The scenes of work and downtime are interspersed with segments in which Wang travels, camera in hand, down endless corridors and into vast sheds, some of them seeming abandoned until he takes us into the corner where the work goes on. You realize that each of these places once employed thousands and are now down to dozens. Then the plants close, one by one, and this is marked by an odd touch: the workers are taken out to the country for a last shakedown inspection at the hospital. They are there for a few weeks, doing little but having their blood tested, so that their stay takes on the lineaments of a bleak vacation. They drink, play cards, watch porn videos, and take brief jaunts outdoors; one of them manages to drown in a pond. It is a valediction and, of course, a muted death sentence, since the visit can do little but confirm that they have been poisoned by their labor.

In the second section, Wang introduces us to the surrounding neighborhood, an accretion of one-story shacks not much better than chicken coops, laid out along vaguely graveled paths. The place is called Rainbow Row, although the name was apparently imposed by officialdom – it was originally called Handmaiden’s Grave, after a romantic suicide legend, but that moniker clearly wouldn’t do. The action begins with a fair at which a fast-talking MC raffles off a few big prizes – the entire ceremony could be translated with little cultural difference to almost any country in the world – after which scavengers comb the field for anything resalable and the desperate hunt around for the miraculously unscratched scratch ticket. In this section, Wang’s editing shows itself to be as astonishing as his shooting skills, as he weaves dozens of tiny stories together in a sort of roman fleuve, headless and tailless but nevertheless propulsive, as well as revealing. The young, the old, the embittered, the weirdly optimistic, the shrewd, the unbalanced, all are accounted for. Wang manages to establish a sense of community both emotionally and geographically – we keep returning to the White Swan market, where everybody shops and the youth hang out and use the telephone. As the neighborhood is forcibly vacated we worry about the market as if we lived down the way – every time we go in, something else seems to be missing, and the chain that allows it to operate appears unwilling to support the owners in a new location.

The third part begins and ends aboard trains that ply the tracks between the factories. They figured in the first section as well, hauling raw materials to the plants and hauling away the finished product, but now they appear to do little but assist the scavenging of their remaining employees. We get the sense that they will not be running for long. Eventually the section focuses on Old Du and his son, who have been professional scavengers for some time, and who are allowed by railroad workers to live in a trackside shack. Old Du, plainspoken and canny, has survived many reversals and seems likely to withstand his eventual eviction, but his son, much more fragile, begins to fall apart on camera almost from the moment it alights on him.

The movie’s first section is involving in an intellectual way – we are visitors. The second part sets the viewer down in a community, almost as a member of that community, with a stake in its viability and attempts at happiness. The third part, however, is astonishingly intimate – we are all the way inside, very nearly members of a family. Its intimacy is somehow emphasized by the strangeness of its physical setting, which is as striking as if we had lived alongside it for years but were only just suddenly taking notice. The mammoth shells of the factories look not just like outsize ruins but deeply alien, like vestiges of some science-fictional race that has no interest in or sympathy for the human cause. The factories may have been crushed, but they appear able to crush everything surrounding them as they fall. A measure of the greatness of Wang Bing’s film is that it does not allow the viewer to sink into the comforting numbness of despair. Human beings, despite their many flaws, are too valuable for mere contemptible despair to be an option, and humans will somehow carry on in the bleakest of circumstances.

  • 1. Translation by John Waterfield.

Originally published in Sukhdev Sandhu (ed.), Leaving the factory: Wang Bing's Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (New York: Texte und Töne, 2009).

With thanks to Luc Sante