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.