Saturday, December 06, 2008

New Film: Fengming: A Chinese Memoir

Wang Bing's non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2007) establishes a new twenty-first century standard for conceptual minimalism: a single frontal camera set-up for most of its 186-minute duration, occasionally alternating between a default medium-length composition and less ubiquitous medium close-up framings. In front of the documentarian's mini-DV camera, He Fengming (pictured), in a near endless stream of expertly-narrated anecdotes, recounts her experiences as the victim of Mao Zedong's Anti-Rightist purge and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Wang uses neither archival footage nor photographs to illustrate Fengming's personal history, limiting his film instead to his subject's on-camera act of recollection. Fengming is more than He's opportunity to tell her story, it is her chance to speak.

Fengming's identification with anti-Maoist factions began with her husband's publication of an article warning against the dangers of bureaucratic excesses. In spite of the fact that both He and her husband were avowedly socialist in their politics, and that Fengming offered no anti-governmental statement either publicly or privately, the PRC successively labeled each as "rightist," leading to their submission to "struggle sessions" in which their friends and colleagues were called upon to offer denunciations. With their guilt thereby established, each was reassigned to labor camps - Fengming with a substantial reduction in her pay grade and change of vocations, and her husband with a loss of employment. Fengming and her husband - whose love story is among this year's most luminous - were thus among the victims of the first Anti-Rightist movement, which commenced in 1957, and would lead to the internment of hundreds of thousands of persons, 99.8% of which were exonerated after Mao's death.

Fengming and her husband's assignments occurred during the early stages of the Greap Leap Forward (1958-1961) in which Mao's disasterous agricultural policies lead to the starvation of 30,000,000. Miraculously, Fengming was somehow able to escape this fate, unlike so many in the camps - she and her comrades were forced to eat stolen cotton seeds - and was eventually cleared of the Rightist tag in the early 1960s. With the Cultural Revolution, however, Fengming was again identified as a Rightist and was accordingly sent to live with an extremely poor country family. As Fengming notes, theirs was a dirt-walled house without rafters or ceiling panels. (Cinematic comparisons to the family in Yellow Earth [Chen Kaige, 1984] seem apt.) Yet, as poor as they were, Fengming's newest hosts showed a great deal of compasion, as did those at the Dry Gulch farm, who housed He during her visit.

Speaking of, the Dry Gulch anecdotes offers two of the year's most vivid images: a cave filled with the discarded blankets of the deceased, and, thirty years later, the mounds and faded grave-markers of a make-shift cemetery. Fengming: A Chinese Memoir in this respect is a supremely visual work, even as Wang's camera does not stray from the film's eponymous subject. However, it is an imagery generated not by potentially-problematic reproductions (given the film's inherent melodrama, an entertainment in suffering might entail) but through He's expert storytelling, shading and foreshadowing - a perfect, similarly visual moment is her description of a possibly wolf-filled winter landscape - concealing and repeating for clarity. Fengming brings her unspeakable world back into existence.

Of course, Fengming put her narrational facility to use in an earlier written memoir on the same subject, thereby prompting the question of why a film version. The answer, it would seem, is present in the camera's ubiquitous subject: Fengming's face and more generally, her corporeality. Wang's film offers its spectator the experience of this woman's presence, her imminence at the time of Fengming's filming. Once more, we do not simply have the telling of a story, but the body (and spirit) of the woman who suffered, before our eyes, letting her memories roll of her tongue in near real-time.

Wang emphasizes this embodiment in a prefatory passage and coda that both film He in her everyday environs. In the former, we see her walking to her apartment house over the surrounding icy streets, and in the latter, sitting on her couch watching television and answering a phone call (from another survivor of the camps). She is not the abstract author of her written memoirs, but a physical member of the world we share. Fengming is also representative of the 550,000 denounced rightists; this again is a 'Chinese' memoir.

Ultimately, a story like Fengming's needs no aesthetic justification. Her's is an enormously vital story in any society - and no less in liberal ones like our own. Fengming's life is a reminder, if any is necessary, that we must always resist the suppression of opposing points of view, no matter to what end. Nonetheless, Wang's film does more than instruct, it does more than give voice to its' extraordinary subject, which is certainly all that we might ask of a work of Fengming's importance: Wang's latest provides an ontological justification for its (otherwise redundant) celluloid representation.

I would like to thank Lisa K. Broad for her many insights included above. I wish to dedicate this piece to the memory of Andre Bazin, whose life - and the fiftieth anniversary of whose death - has been celebrated this weekend at a Yale University conference organized by Dudley Andrew.

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