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.