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Wang Bing’s Surprise Feature Stirs Critics at Venice

The Ditch (dir. Wang Bing)

The 67th Venice Film Festival concluded last weekend; this year’s edition was not without the venue’s characteristically strong showing of Chinese titles. There were new films by action movie helmers Tsui Hark, Andrew Lau, and John Woo (who received the festival’s lifetime achievement award). Documentary filmmaker Huang Wenhai, who won an award two years ago in Venice for his film We, had two features screening this year. And Zhang Yuan, one of China’s first independent filmmakers from the vaunted 6th Generation, showed up with a state-approved 3-D animated feature(!) But the Chinese title that arguably made the biggest stir was The Ditch, the first narrative feature directed by Wang Bing.

Wang made a name for himself with his documentaries, most notably the nine hour epic West of the Tracks. The Ditch was a twelfth-hour surprise addition to the Venice competition lineup. Gina Doggett of AFP describes the film: “Set in 1960, the film chronicles the conditions facing inmates accused of being right-wing dissidents opposed to China’s great socialist experiment, condemned to digging a ditch hundreds of miles long in the dead of winter.”

Nigel Andrews raves in the Financial Times:

Wang Bing’s onslaught on Chinese communism, in the years between Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” and the cultural revolution, is the most honourable film to emerge from the People’s Republic in recent memory. Needless to say, it was made in secret. Wang, a noted documentarist, awaits the government’s response to having made the movie and then bringing it to Venice.

Justin Chang adds his enthusiasm in his review for Variety:

Drawn from a novel by Yang Xianhui and interviews Wang conducted with survivors (one of whom, Li Xiangnian, is credited with a “special appearance” as one of the prisoners), the film has an overpowering feel of unfiltered reality that persists even as tightly framed dramatic moments begin to emerge. Admirers of Wang’s documentaries know his ability to capture real moments of extraordinary intimacy, and the sense of verisimilitude here is so strong that those walking in unawares may at first think they’re watching another piece of highly observant reportage — never mind that no filmmaker would ever have been granted access, just as no humane documentarian could have kept the camera rolling without offering his subjects a scrap of food at the very least.

Wang gives insights to his motivations for making the film at a Venice press conference. As reported by AFP:

“We wanted to preserve the memories, be aware of the memories, even painful ones,” he told a news conference. As Wang was born in 1967, the events “took place before my birth, so I put in great effort to understand the 1950s and 1960s in China, to understand the historical truth.
“Past facts are criticisable because the Chinese people suffered, but I think it is important to show these events on the screen… to show how past history has for better or worse directed our course,” Wang said.

Here are some additional links to information on the film, in Chinese:

On a related note, dGenerate is proud to announce that it has recently secured a distribution deal with one of China’s pre-eminent documnentary filmmakers, whose shattering works probe the untold stories of China’s Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. More details to come…


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