Without a passionate sect of socially conscious filmmakers, entire cultures have threatened to be misperceived or, worse yet, completely ignored. Asia in particular seems to be painted in largely ignorant brushstrokes, as countries, provinces, even villages are amassed as one homogenous people. Thankfully, the recent work of a growing contingent of independent, politically minded directors have gone some way toward illuminating various marginalized subcultures. Documentarian Wang Bing stands near the forefront of this movement (a company which includes likeminded experimentalists such as Zhao Liang, Liu Jiayin, and Jia Zhang-ke), as his commitment to realism and uncompromising methods of presentation (if you’re unfamiliar, Wang makes looong films) have slowly endeared him as a fixture of the festival circuit.
Wang’s latest nonfiction excavation, Three Sisters, took him to a remote village in Yunnan, an otherwise sizable province located in southwest China. Dwarfed by mountains and sparsely populated, the village is secluded but vital to its residents, who eek out existences as manual laborers but are rarely, despite their best efforts, afforded the opportunity to leave for greener pastures. The title is both literal and symbolic. Wang fixes his gaze on many residents, both young and old, of the village, but he continually returns to one family and their three young daughters, all under the age of 10, but who have already endured a lifetime of labor. Early scenes capture the girls willingly helping their elders maintain the farmland and coral the various animals that their collective livelihood hinges on. These three daughters, then, are in a sense every daughter—every child who’s born into this cycle, which quickly reveals itself as cyclical and potentially never-ending.
Wang’s patient, observational approach is both intimate and epic, stretching past 150 minutes to absorb the feel of the landscape, the monotony of the routines, the soul of a people who know nothing else and in most cases have long since accepted their lot in life. Or, if they haven’t, perhaps they should: In one of the more heartrending sub-stories, a title card reveals that a man who we had previously seen speaking of his imminent attempt to relocate his family to a larger city has now returned, unable to maintain an income to support his children. In fact, these kids and the three sisters are so predisposed to their day-to-day grind that they’re never once captured complaining or questioning their tasks. They cry and fight and joke around like any child would (there’s a moment of levity late in the film where one young girl is attempting to coax her father into reenacting a particularly entertaining burp), but they’re otherwise seen performing their duties—which seem to run from gathering firewood to literally mashing potatoes with their feet—with a quiet resolve.
There’s a palpable sense of both anger and sympathy on the part of Wang for the plight of these people, which falls in line with his major topical concerns, which have thus far been reflected in everything from industrial decline in the shadow of socialism (West of the Tracks) to the first-person account of the political and social sea changes which have colored China’s contemporary history (Chronicle of a Chinese Woman). For its part, Three Sisters is both an extension and a refinement of Wang’s thematic reach, while his unadorned, handheld digital aesthetic is as rigorous as ever. It’s both squalid and oddly intoxicating in execution, a monument to a caste and an environment with beautiful details that support one another, somehow maintaining an entire society in the process. Wang’s dedication to his culture and country is, as always, commendable and illuminating in equal measure, and as he continues to amass an intimidating filmography, his voice has simultaneously grown as important as anyone working in the field of nonfiction filmmaking.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.