Jiabiangou (2010) (The Ditch)
Wang Bing’s The Ditch (2010), the filmmaker’s first full-length fictional feature, is a recreation of Jiabiangou Labour Camp located in the Gobi desert, where prisoners accused of belonging to the Right were sent in order to be “re-educated” through hard labour. We see prisoners being brutalized, living continuously in starvation and in pathetic trenches. We see them surviving on small critters, regurgitated food particles and even buried corpses. There are two kinds of landscapes that they inhabit – the seemingly-infinite plains of the desert where they toil during the day time and the cramped and under-lit trenches that they take refuge during the night – both of which Wang shoots characteristically in digital video on Steadicam and in long shots. The result has the hangover of Wang’s documentary features and each scene comes across less like illusionary fiction and more like the recording of a performance. The acting, likewise, is perched between the emotive and the expressionless. Consequently, Wang’s foray into the grammar of conventional fictional cinema – the occasional shot-reverse shot and close-ups – sticks out as high relief. No doubt, like Brutality Factory (2007), his first stab at fiction, he’s dealing with thin material here that concerns itself more with the need to remember than with the necessity of analytically dealing with history. This approach – the raison d’être of his best non-fiction works – reveals itself as a substitute for straightforward documentation and intentionally swaps prison dynamics for a survival sketch. However, there is one ironic detail that Wang seems to be arriving at here: that Mao’s re-education program at the camp for purported Rightist subversives only teaches them one thing: Every man for himself.