New Left Review: How did you meet the three little sisters there? As your film shows, they are living mainly by themselves, without parents to take care of them.
Wang Bing: Sun Shixiang’s tomb is on a high mountainside. On our way back downhill, we happened to pass this village. We stopped our car there and saw the three children by the road. This was three years ago, when the eldest sister Yingying was seven and not yet going to school. By the time I started shooting, Yingying was ten, and the two younger girls were about six and four. I started chatting with them, and they took me back to their home and cooked some potatoes for me. It’s like that in the countryside. I am used to the ways of village life; they don’t feel strange or alien. I don’t feel intimidated or hesitant about going to a stranger’s home in a village. It isn’t a big deal for me.
Did the life the three children were living remind you of your own childhood?
When I was growing up in the 1970s, life was still very poor in China. Everywhere, across the whole country, people didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. Of course this kind of material poverty left deep impressions in our memory, with many details. Since the 80s the country has basically been on the path away from this poverty-laden state. From the 90s on, problems of this sort have gradually been put behind us. Therefore to a certain extent poverty for us is a question of memory. Then when you come to this mountainous region, all of a sudden you’re confronted by the same poverty, right in your face.
It is true there was general poverty throughout the country in the 1970s, but wouldn’t you say it is a new phenomenon for parents to leave such small children behind to fend for themselves?
Yes, this is a new phenomenon, occurring in a period quite different from the past. This is not to say that people always used to live a happy family life. Instead, it was primarily a state with a high degree of certainty. People’s private lives were restricted by society: you could not easily get a divorce, or go away and leave your family of your own free will. The problem was not merely the ideology: we could see that all our activities were controlled. In those days you couldn’t daydream about leaving, if you no longer wanted to live with your wife or husband. It was actually impossible. You didn’t have the freedom to search for your own personal life. Again, not that people were living very happily in those days. These are two different things.
These problems have emerged now, but this is not necessarily completely bad; to a large extent it is due to economic developments. In fact, with many people working hard their whole lives long, economic relations exert a powerful control over people’s lives – much more powerful than the ideological control of the past. Why? It is simple: look at this small village, poor and remote – all the capable young workers have gone to search for employment elsewhere. You could say that the economy is worse – more horrifying: it exploits people by getting them to make the effort voluntarily, of their own free will.
Three Sisters lasts two and a half hours, with many long shots, mainly following the children’s daily life, with limited dialogue and no voice-over at all. Yet the images were so powerful that, when we saw it at a packed theatre, the audience was transfixed from beginning to end. This suggests you have great confidence in the images’ ability to connect with the audience?
The film has two versions. One is 90 minutes long, made for a television programme. Usually films for television are about 50 minutes, so this is already quite long. The other version is for theatre and lasts for 150 minutes. As I said, a film establishes its connection to its audience through the camera. It is not that the images are necessarily very attractive or appealing. I think what matters is the manner in which the filmmaker works. When you keep on watching, when your attention is continuously trained on something, why is it that you want to look at it, and then to show it to your audience? There has to be something people care about, something that carries on growing. The inner richness of the girls’ characters, all those details of their lives – these keep unfolding, offering the audience the chance to reflect on this increasing complexity. The children radiate kindness, instinctively. Even the younger one helps feed the pigs and goats. It is a very poignant, simple relationship between human and animal. Many things in this film are actually very simple, but it brings out the basic realistic side of human life and feeling, through the life and feeling of the children. A rich film is not an advertisement. It says something about human existence, about the basic things in our life. Three Sisters is set in a poverty-stricken environment, but the film as a whole is not about poverty, it is about the lived experience of the girls’ existence.
New Left Review in conversation with Wang Bing1
“But like the Straubs, Wang searches for the “strategic point,” the single position from which all the action of the scene can be recorded. Caroline Champetier, who worked with the Straubs on Class Relations, has aptly expressed what is at stake in this search: “All the work comes in attempting to respect the existing space, as intelligently as possible, to render account of its lines of force; it is important not to falsify the lines.” The difficulty for Wang was discovering this point in the cramped rooms of a small hut. What are the lines of force? They are defined, first of all, by sources of light, the fires, and the doorways, the television set in the aunt’s house. Beyond these, the camera finds slight diagonals that emphasize the same few possessions, bowls, a stool, or a basket. Outside it is a matter of finding the right distance from the people and knowing when to stop to let them move off into the distance. For Wang, the camera must not be too close: the people are always shown full figure. Only when they stop will he sometimes move in for a closer shot, and these shots provide the strongest sense of exhilaration in the film.”