Chinese Portrait ★★★★

[8]

It seems like only a few weeks ago (and in fact it was) that I was commenting on Wang Xiaoshuai's Shanghai Dreams in this very spot. And my overall assessment of the filmmaker was not very positive. I found him to be a lackluster social realist whose work, while certainly competent, was almost deliberately averse to surprise.

Well, it's always nice to have to eat those kinds of words. Wang is having a real moment right now, just having dazzled the Berlinale with his newest and purportedly most accomplished film, the three-hour So Long, My Son. And True/False is featuring his previous film, an 80-minute documentary that premiered last year at Busan. I can't speak (yet) to So Long, My Son, but I'm happy to report that the documentary, Chinese Portrait, is a stunner.

Alternating between Academy ratio and widescreen, Chinese Portrait consists of around sixty individual shots. (I should have counted, but I didn't realize until too late that it was that kind of film.) The camera moves only once, in a traveling shot through a traffic tunnel. Every other shot is staged in at least the medium-length distance, sometimes in extreme long shot. Frequently, one or two people in the shot are looking directly at the camera, while everyone else studiously ignores it.

Wang uses these stock-still images to show us scenes from ordinary life across China. We see rock quarries and noodle shops; urban traffic circles and pastoral sheep fields; dirt farmers and potato pickers; old men smoking and groups of Muslims in prayer. All of these images are tacitly equated by a flat, declarative style and an editing scheme that implies no argument. This is simply a patient look at a sprawling nation in all its diversity, using generally rigorous means. (Sometimes Wang connects groups of shots, but mostly each shot is individual, separated from the next by a passage of colored leader or an end-flare.)

Several of the shots are true portraits, with one subject standing in a pose before the camera, isolated against his or her environment. But there is no strict method to Wang's practice. Sometimes people look at the camera, sometimes not. Some shots are teeming with activity; some are desolate and empty.

Against all expectations, Wang has very clearly borrowed from the methods of the avant-garde. Although there are specific precedents for Chinese Portrait, such as Jørgen Leth's 66 Scenes From America, Wang seems most influenced by filmmakers such as formalists James Benning and Peter Hutton. There are shots that directly reference Benning's California Trilogy, Hutton's Hudson River films, and even Barbash and Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass.

But above all, Chinese Portrait operates in the spirit of Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Like his films 7915 KM, Abendland, and Homo Sapiens, Chinese Portrait accumulates a wide view, slowly building an implicit argument about a culture and a people.

From the reports out of Berlin, it sounds as if So Long, My Son is a decades-spanning tale of Chinese Communist history and its impact on a single family. If the film is indeed longitudinal in that manner, it stands to reason, because with Chinese Portrait Wang has already spanned Chinese space. It is a synchronic cross-section of a nation in transition, depicted not through its oppressive elements (this will no doubt bother some), but in its quotidian normalcy.