Although it was one of the best films at the Berlin Film Festival this year, Wang Bing’s Ta’ang wasn’t selected for the main competition of the Berlinale, but the “Forum” experimental category — confirming that program’s foresight and taste for great films. The exodus of women and children through mountains and forests amid the sound of crackling gunfire tells the story of our times and the violence of war. It throws us into a faraway reality that peers deeply into each of us, though this experience belongs to people unfamiliar to us.
The Ta’angs are an ethnic group living in the mountain region between China and Myanmar. In February 2015, the civil war forced 100,000 of them to take shelter beyond the border. Wang filmed their odyssey. The plight of refugees proved to be a central theme in Berlin, with Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (“Fire at Sea”), a documentary set on Lampedusa, winning the Golden Bear.
Wang’s film picks up dramatically from its first sequence. “Get lost before I kick you!” The man who is about to keep his promise is wearing a military uniform. We are not told his name, and we never learn it. It’s the film’s first shot. He will soon disappear from the scene never to be seen again. But we continue to hear about those of his kind: men, soldiers. The woman suffering his blows, treated like a dog while she tries to feed her three babies, is a Ta’ang. Sitting in the middle of the refugee camp, among the chaos, she stubbornly ignores her oppressor.
One might almost say that, in this very first scene, Wang has found his film. Where exactly? In the rustic elegance of the woman’s clothing? In her stoic resistance? Or in those three children, who remind us of the three protagonists in Three Sisters? All of Wang’s films find their roots in the mastery of structure. Without going through his whole filmography, it’s enough to think of the industrial complex in West of the Tracks, where this cinema was born, and more recently of Fen Ai‘s psychiatric hospital. Wang needs a structure because his cinema longs for a totality.
But what is totality? It’s not a concept. Totality is made out of parts, of concrete pieces coming from real life. It’s not “violence.” It’s not “the refugees.” It’s not a blurry whole. In that wholeness there has to be this woman. And the violence that, as a refugee, she suffers at the hands of a man in uniform, in that place, in front of those kids. Nevertheless this is a specific case, not yet everything. It’s how the film starts its journey.
From here it follows the wanderings of a refugee group — mostly women and children. It sleeps with them in the forest, between the mountains, in a green nowhere filled with the noises of a war always closing in. In these wanderings things are found and lost. People are found. Little by little we learn their names, their family bonds and their problems — some have left behind their mother in running away, some have brought with them their neighbor’s children. But in the very moment we start living among a group, Wang ruthlessly uproots us and takes us to the next. It’s a way to show the spectator the war’s violence, which constantly creates and undoes every bond. And far more than this.
Wang knows no series of examples will ever be a totality. This jumping from one situation to another deserves credit for tiring the viewer’s preconceptions. As soon as the eye gets used to something, a reference point starts blooming and the shadow of a rule starts taking shape, Wang immediately breaks the scheme and moves on.
But then, where is totality? Wang finds it in another image. The image of fire, of the night, of women sitting around the flickering glow sharing a meal, feeding their children, trying to overcome insomnia and cold. Night and fire in particular, by length and structure, hold an exceptional status in the film. Straub used to say that nothing is more difficult than filming a fire. Wang has done here something unprecedented. In the impossibility of understanding what was being said (Ta’ang language is nothing like Chinese) he allowed the fire to guide him. Switching off the camera when it died out. Switching it back on when some bystander would revive it by blowing on the embers.
The fire, as we know, is never the same, the light changes, and with it the way in which those speaking reveal themselves to the others. It takes us from the anecdote to a simpler and more true word. At the end of the night something invisible — that we didn’t know or didn’t want to say but nevertheless was there from the beginning — emerged. By the end of the night everything was said. And Wang was there to film it.