The eponymous siblings of Three Sisters, Shaanxi-born director Wang Bing's seventh feature, don't lead an enviable life. As their father toils and scrounges in a nearby city, the three girls—Ying, Zhen, and Fen—collect potatoes, haul dung, and tend to various livestock in their small village in China's Yunnan province. Their extended family makes up a notable portion of the village's population as well, but the difference between family and neighbor remains largely indistinguishable in Wang's observational long takes, even as the relations are clearly denoted by titles. The villagers, who sustain a potato plantation and some livestock, share in their collective work's meager rewards, which is often little more than a hot meal and a roof over their heads.
A decade after Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, his towering vision of China in social, economical, and industrial transition, Wang finds the faintest pulse of a genuine socialist economy and community, seemingly light years away from the hyper-modern advancements of the People's Republic that have been documented so invigoratingly by colleague and fellow countryman Jia Zhang-ke. And just as Jia's inimitable, deeply fascinating style, a rousing blend of observational documentary and shrewd narrative inventiveness, mirrors China's complicated state of being, Wang's no-frills style of documentation visually echoes a preadolescent trio's simple yet unforgiving world and its sense of labor as life.
This comes through most clearly in the film's pivotal sequence, in which the sisters' paterfamilias takes six-year-old Zhen and four-year-old Fen away to the city by bus, leaving 10-year-old Ying to tend to their small household under the gaze of her grandfather. As father and daughters make their way up to the bus, Wang's heavy breathing becomes increasingly noticeable as he makes his way up the steep hill to the bus stop. We're consistently aware of his presence, even more so as he serves as his own cinematographer, and the filmmaker spends much of the doc simply following Ying as she goes about her work. The director's brilliant editing gives a steady, inviting pace to Ying's seemingly mundane existence and the banality of her surroundings.
Though this small spot of Yunnan geography seems initially stuck out of time, dubious progress lurks in the mists that often cover the mountainous region. At one point, the village's mayor discusses the inevitability of rising “fees” in the area with his constituents, as nearby areas are being converted and rebuilt in a more modern fashion, even as they live with touch-and-go electricity. It offers a small window of scope, one that's sadly only ruminated on for a few minutes, and suggests that the poverty of the village will only get worse. That Ying's father ultimately returns, unable to make ends meet in the city, underlines the unerring desperation of their station, but also confirms their perseverance and ability to enjoy small things. Their poverty is to blame for Fen's rampant lice infestation and Ying's worrisome cough, to say nothing of the state of their schoolhouse, but the elemental joys become bolder, whether it comes in the form of an apple or a moderate amount of TV time. In essence, Three Sisters serves as a measured epilogue to West of the Tracks, luxuriating in the tremendous hardships and miniscule triumphs of tradition.