With a title similar to Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s 19th century novel, Wang Bing’s latest shares the novel’s central subject: the rigidity and kinetic sparseness of a life lived in conditions of misery. His frame is so tight and its gaze so unmoving that even the slightest rumble of a plastic bag calls out to your attention. One can feel their eyes scale the breadth of images being presented as one would a painting in a museum but then again how often does one look at a painting for over an hour?
The film does not reveal much about the people being recorded until the very end of it where a series of inter-titles provide a context. For the viewers at Courtisane, the introduction of the film by Pieter-Paul Mortier provided that context. The man and his two sons being recorded are Cai and his sons. Cai works as a stone-caster for a factory in Fuming, China. The three of them live in a hut provided to them by the factory along with a dog and her two puppies. Wang Bing was filming them for four days before Cai’s boss threatened them and they had to stop. The specific nature of the threat, whether it was a legal notice or a death-threat, is never revealed.
The TV is running and one can hear the sound from the broadcast but Cai’s two sons never seem to be watching it. They are instead engrossed in their mobile phones – intermittently shifting their gaze to the TV. The lumbering shots show them moving from one screen to the other and only barely engaging with ‘the real world’ around them. Perhaps it is not very pleasant. They live in a run-down hut with a challenging environment; the screens come to their rescue. At the very middle of the film, we see the day descend into night over the course of a single take and it is only when the room is almost completely dark that Cai’s son realizes it’s night and switches on the lightbulb.
Father and Sons is more of an exercise than a fully-finished piece. One can’t help but wonder what Wang Bing would’ve done with the project if he were to have not been threatened by Cai’s boss. The explanation at the end that the filming had to be stopped due to circumstances beyond their control seems very convenient and a quick excuse for it to exist in its current form. The question arises: if Wang Bing didn’t consider his vision fully realized then why was the film finished and presented? Perhaps because this project was a commission from the French government in China, it needed to exist for bureaucratic reasons or it was the reputation of the artist himself at stake.
Who wouldn’t want to have a look at Picasso’s doodles?
Coming up: A report from the screening of Oscar Micheaux’s silent classic Body and Classic, and a live drum accompaniment by William Hooker.