Until this past weekend, Wang Bing was a director whose name I knew only by reputation, and whose work I knew only by a nine-minute excerpt of his first film1, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), that I had seen on YouTube while reading about early digital cinema a few years ago. The clip, of Wang's lo-res DV camera mounted on top of a train as it slowly travels through an industrial town in China during a snowstorm, is hypnotic, its limited perspective revealing new spaces as it is gradually propelled along the tracks. These nine minutes had fascinated me to the point that I wanted to see the film in its 545 minute entirety, but as with many works of such extended length, its availability in the UK is non-existent. In fact, West of the Tracks played in the UK for the first time in 2014, more than a decade after its initial premiered, over the course of three days as part of a complete retrospective of Wang's work during the AV Festival in Newcastle - a festival which has previously screened works by Lav Diaz, James Benning, and Fred Kelemen, among others, rarely seen on these shores. This lack of availability (not just for West of the Tracks, but for all of his work) and my geographical and financial distance from Newcastle - around 350 miles and a number of long train rides - forced Wang further back in my mind and, understandably if not fairly, pushed the directors of more readily accessible work to the forefront.
Last Sunday, after Wang's name re-emerged during a train of thought inspired by something I don't remember, as is semi-often the case, I discovered two of his works on YouTube: Coal Money (2008), and Man With No Name (2009, pictured above). In Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler describes the formal properties of Wang's second film, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), as "intensely ascetic", which would also apply to these two films. Both are comprised almost entirely of long takes, sometimes cut-up but mostly left unaltered, and shot digitally in a handheld, fly-on-the-wall style, and in both works, Wang observes the difficult lives of his subjects objectively from a (middle) distance. Coal Money, while brief at 53 minutes, offers a comprehensive examination of a supply chain of coal in the northern province of Shanxi, from the mines to the trucks to the roadside traders, focusing specifically on the people - labourers, drivers, negotiators, wholesalers - involved at each stage of the process fighting to make a profit in a competitive market. Man With No Name, on the other hand, is both bigger, at 92 minutes, and smaller, in terms of scope, and sees Wang silently shadow an isolated, self-sustaining man as he lives and works alone in the arid plains of Hebei, a northern province which surrounds Beijing. He grows crops to eat, uses mud to build the walls of an unfinished house, and cooks; sometimes the drone of traffic can be heard in the distance.
I can't speak generally about Wang's work having only seen two of his films, and both of those only once, but this fleeting aural detail stands out. The unnamed man is introduced as a lone figure emerging from his home in a cave into a seemingly endless landscape, yet the distant sound of car horns suggests he isn't as isolated as he first appears - which begs the question: why is he here? Geographically speaking, he could return to town relatively easily and earn a living without necessarily having to struggle to such an extent, so why doesn't he? Wang doesn't provide any answers, nor does he ask the man any questions during the long periods in which they are together in his cramped home. Instead, he allows this brief glimpse of civilisation to enrich and complicate his simple study of the man's life without changing his role as a passive observer. It's just a sound his microphone picked up in the background of a shot.
This attitude of imposing meaning while maintaining objectivity can also be seen in the editing of Coal Money. Wang follows a number of people as they try to make as much money as possible from their positions in the supply chain, from its beginning in the mine to its end with the traders. As such, its structure is more systematic than Man With No Name, drifting away from people as their roles in the process end to pick up whoever appears next along the line. Throughout this journey, Wang lingers on the various hurdles each person has to overcome to do their job: truck congestion, corrupt bosses, treacherous roads, police interference, finding buyers in the overcrowded coal market, bad coal, ruthless negotiations, and, most importantly, not knowing how much money is coming in, or even where it's coming from. Wang frames the process in such a way to emphasise its relentless cycle, cutting away from the (eventual) end of a negotiation and returning to the mine as around thirty trucks queue up to start the process all over again. It's obviously a terrible business to be in, but people have to make money to survive, no matter how tough the job. At one point, Wang briefly observes a labourer, covered head-to-toe in black dust, as he unloads a trailer filled with large lumps of coal. After finally pushing one of the larger pieces over the side of the trailer, he says: "what a fucking shit job," briefly pausing before carrying on with his work; Wang stays with him, watching as he starts to push another lump around, before cutting to the now-empty truck pulling away, and its driver counting his money as the labourers stand in the background.
These men are caught up in the cycle, but it's the labourers who come out of it worst. In one heated exchange, a group of workers refuse to unload a truck until they can agree a fair fee for their labour with their boss, who responds by shouting: "suit yourself, you just won't have any work." They give in because they have to, otherwise they won't make any money at all - and it's this idea that forms the crux of both films. If Man With No Name documents a struggle to survive away from the world, then Coal Money is about the labourers fighting to survive within its systems. And by objectively watching these struggles repeat themselves ad nauseam without comment or participation, Wang makes it all seem so hopeless. This is just how life is for a lot of people in China. Everything is a battle, and that's a terrible thing.
1 I use the term "film" loosely and freely throughout this piece, even though Wang Bing's work is, as far as I can tell, wholly digital.