Wang Bing’s “The Ditch” Reviewed
By Dan Edwards
This review originally appeared in Screening China.
Bedraggled men sit in a seemingly empty desert landscape, the bareness of their surrounds strangely beautiful on screen. We see the group from a distance, as if the desert itself is a brooding presence observing these puny beings on its surface. The men are allocated numbers and descend into caves dug into the desert floor, where earthen “beds” carved out of the wall await them. Welcome to the world of Wang Bing’s The Ditch, surely one of the most stark depictions of the deprivations of the Maoist era ever committed to celluloid.
Many Chinese features since the 1980s have touched on the suffering inflicted by Mao’s endless mass political campaigns, but few have been so brutally raw in their depiction of the era’s cruelties. The Ditch plays out on the edge of the Gobi desert in China’s northwestern province of Gansu, where thousands were exiled after taking up Mao’s invitation to speak out about societal problems during the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1957. The wave of criticism spooked the regime – or perhaps as some claim the entire setup was designed to lure out dissenters. In any case, the Anti-Rightist Campaign followed hot on the heels of the Hundred Flowers movement and saw many of those who had spoken out imprisoned or otherwise persecuted. As some of the characters in The Ditch recall, many suffered for ‘crimes’ such as pointing out incidents of corruption or suggesting the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” should be widened to become a “Dictatorship of the People.”
After their arrival in the desert, the prisoners of the The Ditch are forced to endure pointless labour, digging an endless trench and ‘cultivating’ the arid soil of their surrounds. Carts do the rounds every morning collecting the night’s corpses as old men literally drop dead from overexertion. Some of those left living receive letters from home informing them that their wives have divorced them in order to escape association with “bad” political elements.
After a time all work ceases as Mao’s botched “Great Leap Forward” sees famine sweep across the country and the camp’s meagre food supply dwindles to almost nothing. Men are reduced the level of animals, eating plants they know will poison them, or in some cases gnawing on the corpses of fellow inmates.
The most heartbreaking sequence sees the dull monotony of starvation disturbed by the arrival of an inmate’s wife, who has travelled for days to bring her husband supplies. But by the time she arrives her husband has already expired. A fellow prisoner is reluctant to reveal the location of the body because, he tells fellow prisoners, he knows the remains have already been cannibalized. Meanwhile the camp administrator berates the distraught wife for wanting to see her “reactionary” husband. “You should move on,” he tells her brusquely.
These scenes are all the more disturbing for the veracity claimed by director Wang Bing. “Everything in the film really happened at the camp,” Wang was quoted as saying following the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival last year. “Nothing has been made up or added.” The story is based on the director’s interviews with elderly survivors of the Jiabiangou and Mingshui labour camps, as well as the novel Goodbye, Jiabiangou by Yang Xianhui.
Given The Ditch‘s realist tone, it’s not surprising Wang Bing has emerged from China’s independent documentary sector. His first film in 2003 was the epic nine-hour epic West of the Tracks, which traced the closure and decay of one of the China’s mammoth socialist industrial complexes in far northeast. The Ditch is Wang’s first dramatic feature, and reveals the director to be an artful stylist, framing his bleak tale in long shots in which the men are only vaguely differentiated from each other as the indignities of prison camp life take their toll and their individuality is dissolved by hardship and hunger. They are dwarfed and ironically imprisoned by their stunning, wide open desert surrounds, adrift in a world utterly divorced from the urban environments they have come from. The camera shadows them moving through the treeless environment in tracking shots evoking the ghostly presence of the dead littering the landscape. Every frame of this movie feels haunted – by hunger, death, and the knowledge that the Chinese authorities have attempted to erase this history from the nation’s consciousness.
Eventually the handful of survivors of this nightmare are released by the Bureau for Re-education to make way for a new batch of prisoners. The camp director asks one inmate to stay on, offering him privileges in return for help dealing with influx of new men. “You’ll be better off than those released,” the director tells him. “After the famine, they’ll still be Rightists.” The comment hangs like a portent of the Cultural Revolution that was to engulf China a few years later, subjecting “Rightists” to a new bout of murderous persecution at the hands of Mao’s Red Guards.
Like other recent films dealing with the Maoist era, such as Hu Jie’s In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul and Though I Am Gone, it seems unlikely authorities will tolerate screenings of The Ditch on the Chinese mainland, even at ‘unofficial’ festivals and events. I was fortunate to see the film at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival, the one place in China where such controversial works can be openly screened. Meanwhile, back on the mainland cinemas are gearing up to unleash the Communist Party’s latest love letter to itself, the sequel to 2009’s Founding of a Republic, imaginatively entitled Founding of the Party. But until films like the The Ditch and Lin Zhao can openly screen in their country of origin, the ghosts that play at the edges of these tales will continue to haunt the nation’s consciousness – and no amount of historical revisionism will dispel them.