“Fang Xiuying is the mother of a good friend of mine. I was going to make a documentary about her in 2015, but it was postponed because I was too busy at the time. In 2016, the friend called to tell me that her mother’s illness had grown severe, and she might not live very long. I went to see Fang Xiuying right away. When I got there, I realized it’d be difficult to make a documentary about her. I hesitated, but still decided to film her. We filmed the last eight days of her life. So it’s a story about a dying old woman.”
The Brooklyn Rail: In the first three minutes of Mrs. Fang, we see footage of Fang in a relatively functional state. She must have been more or less lucid at the time. I’m wondering, what did she think of being filmed?
Wang Bing: In fact, at the time in 2015, she had already lost the ability to talk. But she still had memories of her children. For example, whenever her daughter came home, she would approach her and hold her hand. I don’t think she understood what it is to be filmed. I only filmed her when she was happy and not stressed. So I don’t have much footage of her in a functional state, only a few shots. I thought I would have more time later, but life is precarious. Ultimately, the time I got with her was short.2
“Vertical cinema, films that walk. Horizontal cinema, films that are recumbent. Between them is a time outside time, the same duration alien to the laws of work, of reason and of health. How, and until when, can a life be extended once it seems to have left itself behind? What virtual actions remain latent within what appears to be the most complete inaction? From indefatigable walking to the fatigue of the recumbent, the spectacular reversal of postures is also accompanied by a shared perseverance: Wang Bing’s gesture consists in disengaging from the core of exhaustion the ultimate fragments of the possible.”
“The outside world is shown in a surprisingly limited way by Wang, who restricts his camera to following several men – Mrs. Fang’s relatives and neighbours – on nocturnal fishing excursions to murky waters surrounding the village. This group of men (the women are almost exclusively shown at Mrs. Fang’s bedside), whom we watch in several lengthy sequences, rely on flashlights and an electrified metal net to try and catch fish. The observation and work is curious in and of itself – it’s unclear if this activity is a necessity or recreation – but more curious still is that these scenes are the film’s only departure from Mrs. Fang’s deathbed, turning them into the strongest counterpoint to our intimate confrontation with a fading life. The forlorn loneliness of the fishing and its meagre effectiveness cast these moments of respite away from the claustrophobic house in poetic relief: a kind of soul searching, both in the needs of life (searching for food) and the needs of play (the activity has the aspect of a game). We can’t help but feel that the men’s search in the town’s watery outskirts is a search in some way to relieve Mrs. Fang: not to help her recover, but to help her pass without greater suffering. They step away, perhaps to escape the pervasive atmosphere of impending death, to fish for the family, but something in their search, shown in all its patient simplicity, achieves the metaphysical. Their activity is everyday; it will even – of course – resume after Mrs. Fang dies. Is it too much of a stretch to compare these fishermen with Wang Bing, their electric rods to his camera, and their search for life something he, too, quests after every day?”
Daniel Kasman & Christopher Small4
- 1. Wang Bing in Zoe Meng Jiang, “Wang Bing with Zoe Meng Jiang,” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2017.
- 2. Zoe Meng Jiang, “Wang Bing with Zoe Meng Jiang,” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2017.
- 3. Emmanuel Burdeau, “Vertical Cinema, Horizontal Cinema,” originally published as ‘Wang Bing à Cassel’ in artpress 447 (September 2017), republished on Sabzian, April 18, 2018.
- 4. Daniel Kasman & Christopher Small, “Mrs. Fang (Wang Bing, France/China/Germany) – Wavelengths,” Cinema Scope, nr. 72, Fall 2017.