A Conversation with Wang Bing
In 2018, Wang Bing stayed in Ghent as an “Artist in Focus” in the context of the Courtisane film festival. In the margins of the festival, students and former students of the KASK School of Arts Ghent invited Wang Bing to talk about filmmaking and to cook noodle soup with dumplings together. The director kindly agreed. The conversation that followed was shaped and guided by film fragments shown in between the questions. The filmmakers-to-be had selected scenes and shots from Wang Bing’s films they wanted to talk about. Seated in a semicircle around the filmmaker, in the school’s film studio, most of those present were filmmakers themselves, be it professionally, as students or as teachers. The following text is an edited transcription of a part of this conversation and deals with filmmaking from the position of the filmmaker.
Your films have a very strong narrative quality, but yesterday you mentioned you don’t know which film you will be making while shooting. Is there a form of writing involved during shooting? How do you structure a film, how do you keep track of the narrative?
Wang Bing: For me, the story will always be the basis of a film. Whether it’s a documentary or a fiction film, there’s a story underneath it all. When it comes to keeping track of the narrative, of course there’s some idea at the start: a beginning. From then on, however, it’s a process of building something with what’s at hand. While shooting, the narrative starts to develop itself. Since I cannot control what happens around me, I let go of control and gradually the narrative takes form.
Does that mean the narrative takes form during shooting? Or do you rather forge a story afterwards, while editing?
During shooting. Editing is important, but it’s not what makes the film. We shouldn’t overemphasize the role of editing in creating a narrative. It’s already during shooting that you keep in mind the “direction” of the film: where do we go? Now, with digital-video equipment, it has become so much more convenient to overemphasize the role of editing. It allows us to accumulate a tremendous amount of rushes. But if I gather two thousand hours of rushes and then tell the editor to make a film out of it, it would take them too long just to watch everything. So while filming, I already make a first selection in the back of my head. This way, by the time I finish filming, I already have an idea of the narrative, of certain shots I will put together to tell a story.
It’s really important to have this “blueprint” ready in your brain. It will reduce time and effort during editing. During the editing process you will be confronted with many different opinions, from producers, editors and other spectators. Without this map in your head, you will get lost in their thoughts.
Excerpt from Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (Wang Bing, 2002)
There’s a formal quality in the light, in the lens flares, etc. that is very present here. Is this something that is dictated by the surroundings or something you look for actively while filming?
It comes down to working with what you’ve got. To take this specific example: when I was filming this scene, I reflected on how to use the space I was in. We would go from a narrow room to a more open space. It is this I am looking for: changes like this “opening up” of a space. You will see this in the films by Antonioni too, for example. When you’re watching a film, it is easy to feel the emotions it evokes, but it takes a lot of effort to feel the mood that comes with an environment while you’re shooting a film. The most useful thing a teacher ever told me was to be conscious of how you build up time and space in a film. That’s the freedom, the liberty of narration. Narration is a very personal, emotional thing and it is really important for a filmmaker to know what your narration will be. You have to be confident in your way of telling a story.
When did you start developing this language, this way of telling a story?
I already started developing this sense early on. I had been working as a cameraman for television shows. As a cameraman, you’re not the one who makes the decisions on how to shoot. For example, once someone on set turned on all the lights. I did not agree and told them that the camera could do very well without all of these lights. The director would not listen to me though. During this period, I would keep on repeating to myself that I would start doing it my way from the moment I got the chance to. But as long as you’re not the director, you will be taking orders from someone else. After a few years working as a cameraman, I decided it was time to stop taking orders. I didn’t want to keep following other people’s instructions anymore. With West of the Tracks, I could finally start working on my own film. In the years prior to that film, however, I had been busy collecting a budget for it. I successfully collected enough, only to find out this way of working and producing is very inefficient.
I don’t have many instructions for you. As a director, you have to believe in yourself, in your own judgement... In fact, the only advice I could give you is that making a film is always a cooperation with others. If you find it’s difficult to work with a certain person though, to cooperate or communicate with them, then you will face a lot of difficulties. So, once you realize it’s difficult to work with one guy, you should get yourself another guy. That’s really important advice.
The importance of cooperation and the people you choose to work with seems to be reflected in the size of your crew while shooting: you always work with a small group of people close to you. Is there a moment in the making of your films where more people are involved? Do you show early versions of your film to others during the editing process, for example?
Except for the people that are with me while we’re shooting, I seldom work with others. After filming I will edit a first rough cut. This will go to my editor, who takes care of technical details. I am very cautious to discuss my film while making it because I’m the one who’s filming and I know quite well what I want out of it. Others who weren’t there while shooting don’t know what I’m trying to tell. I wouldn’t know who I’d have to talk to. So it’s unnecessary. Of course, I do ask the opinion from the editor I’m working with, or from some friends I trust and who will give me serious suggestions, after seriously thinking it over with me. But as a director you need to take full responsibility for your work. You’re the one taking risks. You can’t rely on others.
Making a film requires a lot of money and a lot of cooperation. There’s only one person who will take responsibility though and that’s you, the director. You can’t put anyone else in this position. If a film becomes successful, many people will say they contributed a lot to it. If the film flops though, they will deny they had anything to do with it. So as a director, I should take full responsibility: for the film, but also for myself, for how I think and how I act while making it.
Excerpt from Feng ai [‘Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)
You are often filming very personal, intimate moments. Here, you are in a mental health institution. Do you ever feel that you or your camera do not belong in a specific place? That you are intruding?
As a director and as a person, sharing a space with the people I film, I build up a relationship with them, a human relationship. At the same time, while you’re filming these people and you hold a camera in front of them, you do indeed serve a bigger purpose. You should be aware of the fact that you record the way people act: their gestures, their lives. That’s a very serious thing to do. It should feel serious to you. The presence of the camera helps to put a pressure on me and the people I film. I am making an image of them and thus a certain judgement.
It’s always about morality, about how you feel and think. Facing these issues is very complicated. During filming, I’m very focused on the image. Of course, while working, you do question yourself, you struggle and pose yourself all sorts of questions. What do I film? In which way do I film it? What is the reason I film this way? I ask myself what is private and what is not. Where does intimacy end and where does privacy start?
When it comes to Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part], there’s another layer of privacy to be identified. As outsiders, we do not know what goes on within the walls of this institution. Thus, there’s a certain “privacy” within this institution already, apart from the privacy of the individuals inside. You have to ask yourself what is the difference between these privacies.
Excerpt from Fu yu zi [Father and Sons] (2014)
You mentioned earlier that already during shooting you have a rather clear idea about the narrative track you will follow in a film. In the process of editing a film though, what do you base your choices on? What makes you decide that a certain duration is long enough? When do you cut?
First, I’d like to talk about why I wanted to make this film. I got to know these two boys by filming San zimei [Three Sisters]. A few years after I shot Three Sisters, I paid a visit to these boys. They travelled from their hometown to Fuming together with their father. When I finally met them in Fuming, I was shocked by the way they were living. All three of them, the boys and the father, lived in this one room and slept together in a small, narrow bed. That’s what attracted me the most: this bed. I was very curious about how they spent their time together on this bed.
I knew already that I would not be able to spend a lot of time filming with them in this place. Their neighbours did not want me to film there. So I filmed for two days in a row. I wanted to build their story by spending these two days continuously filming them and their movements. Since there was not really a story to be told, I just tried to record everything, to make a record of their lives and their movements, of the relation between these three people in this bed. On the third day, some people came by and told me to stop filming. They said they were not comfortable with me filming the place, so I stopped.
I knew this film would not be screened on the big screen, in cinemas. I made it for exhibitions. This means people will usually stop by the screen for a while and then carry on again. They will only see parts of the film, glances of the life of these three people. I wanted to be sure they would definitely see the bed, so I just kept filming the bed.
In the edit, I wanted to adjust the time in the film to real time. I wanted to emphasize their body language, their movements, their gestures. As if you could walk into this room at any given moment and experience the time and space there. I wanted to reduce the difference between looking at these people on a screen and looking at them in real life, between cinematic time and real time. In the edit, I selected the shots that most conveyed the emotions I felt while filming...
In the credits, there’s mention of another cameraman…
We went there together. We were always together during the shooting.
What does it mean for you to choose to make this film for exhibition purposes? You emphasized the need for a duration, to “free” the time spent with these people. But in a museum, people choose the duration themselves: they will come and go and doing so they will make their own “edit” of the film. Most of us saw the film in a cinema though, since it was the opening film of the Courtisane film festival three years ago. It’s a very different experience when you’re in a cinema seat and you’re inclined to watch the film from the beginning to the end. Where did this choice to make the film for a museum context come from?
Personally, I don’t particularly like to show the film in cinemas, as it was never intended to be screened there. I made it for galleries and museums. But sometimes, people will show it in a cinema... There’s not so much I can do about that.
Making a film for the cinema, you will be adjusting time, forging it into cinematic time, working with a certain narrative. In this film I did not want to do that. I wanted to give the audience a “free space”. In a museum, the audience has the freedom to decide if they want to stay in this room for a little longer or if they only want to pass by. In a cinema, this is not a possibility – unless you exit the cinema, of course. So I wanted to escape the “obliged” time experience of the cinema and enter the “free” time experience of the museum.
There’s this moment at the very end of the film where you tilt the camera upwards in order to reframe. The father enters the room and you decide to adjust the image so that he fits in completely. It is the last camera movement in the film and therefore it might be perceived as a very meaningful movement, an “ethical” movement, perhaps. Are you thinking about the ethics of camera movements in moments like these?
I do not believe there’s much meaning in this specific camera movement. I give meaning in different ways. In a film that is driven by the narrative, you’re supposed to make selections of fragments of time in order to keep the story going. In this film, I try to “open” time and not to “select” time. I only try to record these lives. This film allows for people to walk in and out of time, in and out of these lives, without me interfering.
But then again you did make cuts. How do you decide to cut if you don’t want to select time?
I did do some cutting, but that’s just to make the physical time more fluent. These cuts don’t serve the purpose of the narration, though. Here, I only document. In most of the films shown in cinemas, time “serves” the story, it is broken into pieces because the story must go on. In this documentary though, time becomes an existence of its own. You feel it. You feel the time and space of this specific room. Time “becomes”, it comes into being, into existence. It does not have a function; it is not used for some purpose... Time is on its own in this film. Time is time. While we are here this afternoon, time goes on. But there is no purpose for this time. We are sitting here and time simply exists.
The way a director deals with time also shows his or her attitude towards film. It’s about the relationship between time and story. Time is often controlled by the story, but when you look at for example the work of Abbas Kiarostami, you discover that films can set time free. It is hard to explain, but in some of the films of Kiarostami, he will “open time”, there are these moments where he will “let time go”, as if it’s finally allowed to go back to its natural state. It is free to go on. At the same time though, the story goes on as well. It does not control time anymore, but it does go on. There are these two layers now: story and time... Do you understand?
[During the session, three translators now started to discuss time and the best way to translate what Wang Bing was talking about, which made the director amusingly question whether he was being clear enough.]
Excerpt from Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)
By following and filming these people, you create a relationship between yourself as a filmmaker and the characters, but also between the audience and the characters. At a certain moment in this scene, you decide to stop and let the character walk away. This is the moment you make a decision in the editing to let them go. Is this a planned action? Put differently: how much of the editing is done while filming?
We had been filming this guy, following him, walking behind him for a couple of days, during day and night time. There were two reasons why I decided to stop filming. First of all, you see there’s almost no light anymore there; it’s pretty dark. Secondly, we had been following him for a long time and we were pretty exhausted.
When it comes to the edit, there are of course plenty of ways to think about editing beforehand. But the end of the film seldom comes to me while filming. It’s just a natural way of working: we started filming, then we got tired, so we stopped.
There have been only a few moments where I really did think: we can stop filming now, with the edit already in my head. Moments where you “see” a cutting point, like an ending. Usually though, I don’t think too much about the edit while filming. Editing while filming means you have to make quick decisions. If you think about it too much, you’ll lose sight of what you see. What’s really important for the editing during shooting, besides the character, the space, ... is the form.
Every filmmaker has a different approach: how do you move your camera within a certain space, how do you move around these characters? Which method do you use, which lens do you use? How to fit this room into this frame? Each filmmaker has a different sensibility. For me, for example, when I enter a space, I decide which angle I will use first, which second, third, fourth, ... I decide the order in which I will film these shots. It’s like creating a map in the back of your brain. So, when I follow a character, I know how I will move around.
So for example I know this will be shot one and that will be shot five. Then I become this computer, calculating which shots could be combined, which shots are still lacking. You anticipate. Then afterwards you come up with an even better shot, a better angle and you start wondering: should this be shot five? Or shot three? Sometimes I will think to myself: this must be shot seven!
So the editing during filming is done by thinking very hard and combining movements by the camera with movements by the characters. Sometimes you’re filming a plan séquence and then you realize this is not the right choice for this moment, so you need to adjust your plans, as if you are a computer. But this can only take about ten percent of your CPU usage: the rest of your mind should remain focussed on what your character is doing, on the logic of the story and on the technical part of the camera. So while you are seemingly simply looking at something through a lens, many things are happening in your brain, like “background tasks”. You constantly have to make a lot of decisions, you need to feel the inner world of your character, you need to feel the movements and the logic behind them. Once you get more experienced and these thoughts really do become background tasks, you will come to a point where you can actually enjoy what is happening in front of the lens. You start looking at these movements as if you were watching a film instead of making one. At this point, you give about fifty percent of your energy to pleasure, to love. You now enjoy watching this body, its movement, the anatomy of the character, their inner world. In your heart, you are admiring them.
Once you know what to film and how to film it, everything will become clear to you. And as it appears clear to you, it will appear clear on the screen. It’s like you’re waiting for a film to show up. You need to feel the people you film. The moment I don’t feel anything anymore, I will stop filming.
It would be boring and a waste of time if you don’t know what you’re shooting. So for me, editing is not about the position of the image. It is about the process of the image: how to present the movement of the character. It would be a big failure if you can sense the purpose of an edit while seeing a film. After you finish the editing, you step backwards and watch the film and at best you might feel like this story now moves on its own, it is out of your control. That’s the process of editing.
Hearing you talk on different occasions, I extracted the idea coming from you of “learning to live in the real world”. I wondered if that’s something like advice to young filmmakers?
You have to study hard. One has to learn with a lot of effort, but you also have to have enough confidence. You can’t be shy. All your work will be born from your continuous efforts and from believing in yourself. Only from there can you solve your problems one by one. Slowly resolve your problems: you work with what you have.
As a young filmmaker, in my experience, you have to be very active, very mobile. You can’t just be sitting around, imagining what you want to do. Of course, you need to think first, but once you want to make something, you need to become very concrete, very serious: you need to find out how to make it happen, how to plan, organize things, how to finish your work properly. Especially for young people, this is very important: you have to be active.
When I was a student, I was told by my teacher that there are two ways of learning how to make films. One way is to shoot every day, until you finally get it. Another way is: first you take lessons, you study the theory, and only afterwards you shoot. Personally, I’ve always wanted to gain experience through filming.
You’ve mentioned you want to make “documents” of reality. What do you believe is the place of imagination within documentary filmmaking?
For me, there is no gap between reality and imagination because I imagine what could happen; I anticipate what will happen; I expect the film will be a certain way; I set a goal before filming and then, during filming, I will try to achieve this goal, little by little, staying as close as possible to the vision I had. It’s a process of achieving what you dreamed. While shooting I will ask myself: is this what I expected? Is it good or not? While filming, you try to stay as close to the ideas you had about the film beforehand. Sometimes you can stay close, you can almost approach your ideas...
I’m trying to give an example. When I’m filming a young boy, I will ask myself continuously: what is the meaning of this young boy, of this human being? What is his goal, what is the purpose of his life? What is the “space”, the “room” of his life? The world is so big, in such a huge universe, but then you come to the life of one human being and you ask yourself: what is the meaning of the life of this single existence? How “big” is his purpose?
So that boy. He enters a shop. He talks to an elderly woman. He’s very bored, so he goes to his friend’s place. His friend is not at home. But the grandma of his friend is there. So he talks to this grandma. And she’s asking him stuff like, “how much did your shoes cost?” He’s still bored, so he goes back to the shop. There, once again, he talks to this other old woman. So he’s very bored. What does all that mean? He goes home. His mom and dad are at home and they cooked dinner for him. Their home is just this little room in the dark. The three of them have dinner.
You see all these actions of this one boy. What you do now, is you decompose all his actions. Before filming, I wonder: what is his life like? What is his reality? How can I think about him as a character? But then you film him, you connect all these small, simple movements, this boredom, and then you realize that this is his “fan wei” (范围), his “form”.1
“What is imagination?” you ask me. Imagination is not just imagining things out of nothing: it is also the depth of your understanding of this boy’s life. Imagination is not a concept built out of nothing, by an “author”. Nothing is constructed out of nothing: it is because you are in this specific place with this specific boy and you look at him, you observe him, and you start wondering, what do his actions mean? His existence is revealed under your eyes. You are looking at this existence and you wonder how deep you can look into it.
Could you elaborate on the search for meaning in someone’s life?
I look at this boy or this character. To him, all his existence is just that. This city he lives in is so big, but that’s not the size of his singular life. The range of his life in this big city is limited. What he can access from this city, you can visualize again. It’s this small range. And that small range, that’s his life.
His life, his family and the few places he can go: that’s the few places that are connected to his life, his existence. They form his life. All the other things have no link to him. It seems like he lives in this big city, but the rest has no connection to him.
What does a day of shooting look like? Since many of the relationships with the characters are personal: do you eat and sleep together? Or do you go to a hotel, do you live separately from your characters during filming?
When you film someone, you can’t cross the line of acting naturally. For example, you don’t have to flatter them. If I want to take a break, I take a break. If I want to leave, I leave. There are things that will interest me, other things that won’t. I can be very relaxed around people. I won’t force anything on people. Filming the way I film means being among people. This will make you relate your own life to the film you’re making. You think about the problems of your film or your own personal questions, in your heart. You always think about what’s the character or psychology of this person and how to reveal it. You ask yourself, why do I want to film this person?
Ever since I started out making films, it’s been smooth, I’ve been lucky. People always ask me how I behave around these people and I just say: very natural. People ask me if I have a strong goal, and I just say no. Just from the fact that you want to film someone, it’s very natural that you have a good feeling towards this person. If you really have the urge to film this person, you’ll identify with that person, you’ll have empathy with them. If you don’t feel empathetic with a person, you won’t want to film them. People always ask me this and it always confuses me. I’m confused because I really don’t do anything in particular. I don’t want to force anything with anyone. I’m here because I don’t have a choice. Usually I’m not this talkative at all, usually I barely say a word.
Of course I will be staying somewhere; when I finish shooting, I’ll go to my own place or to a hotel. The only exception to this was Three Sisters. Because we filmed in the mountains, it was too hard to go up and down the mountain roads every day, so I’d sleep in the neighbourhood, close to the place of the sisters. But you don’t want to burden the people you film. You don’t have to be especially polite, either. There is no “method” to follow. If I come to your place and film you, I will offer you my honest self.
In your camera work, you seem to always react to what happens in front of you. Do you ever construct a scene or ask people to repeat a movement? Do you ever direct your characters?
Over the years, many people have asked me that. “Don’t you do any mise-en-scène at all?” I don’t do that. I don’t have a mise-en-scène department. I’m very bad at giving people instructions. So I don’t. Only a few days ago, in the Netherlands, I explained it like this: you can look at my rushes of the last twenty years, and you will not find a single moment where I give instructions to people. Of course, if I wanted to, I could just do it and then hide it, cut it out of the films. But if you were to look at the rushes, there’s not a single instruction by me in there.
I have been a quiet person ever since I was young. Normally I just quietly hold the camera and I sit there. I seldom talk to people. I don’t like to communicate a lot during filming. Ideally, we just mind our own business. That’s also the reason why I don’t ask so many questions. To film someone and to ask them all these questions, that just feels weird. I prefer it when everyone minds their own business.
I do understand this question, though, and I was already asking it myself in school. I was thinking about the framing a lot, too: I found that the frame of the image can be very limiting. I appreciated freedom, so I wanted to open up the frame. Therefore, I prefer to move my camera a lot, so that after editing you can feel the entire space. The space as a whole. When you’re thinking about camera work and different spots to place the camera, you think about the editing, you are building up a sense of space. You try to present a space without a blind spot. You need to offer an open space.
One last question. Do you still go to the cinemas yourself? Which films do you enjoy?
In Beijing, just like in most of the cities in China, the films you can see in the cinema are very limited. Most films that are screened are commercial films, not arthouse. Every year I buy a lot of DVD’s and I watch them at home. I watch them on my own television.
I don’t know what to say; there’s too many of them. I’ve got tens of thousands of DVD’s. Sometimes, a film I’ve watched appears to me in the back of my head and then, suddenly, I think: what is the meaning of this film? For example, suddenly an image of a film by Pasolini appears before your eyes and you think about this film. So you think “what’s the meaning of his films in the history of cinema?” I’ll think about this or that director, and wonder about what’s the point he made. Why do we watch their films? I’ll continuously think about the way his or her film feels. What is the meaning of their existence? Why do we like them? Sometimes even directors that you hate will make you wonder about the meaning of this existence. Where does this film find a place in history? How can we map these films in that bigger narrative?
- 1. 范围 is impossible to translate to English in a graceful way because it signifies several things at the same time. It translates as “purpose”, as “form”, as “space”. Here, Wang Bing seems to be referring to the “range” or the “interval” of the boy’s life, his “role”, his “latitude”.
Image (1) from Fu yu zi [Father and Sons] (Wang Bing, 2014)
Image (2) from Feng ai [‘Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)