EIFF 2013: Wang Bing’s ‘Three Sisters’ is a lengthy but hugely effective observational portrait

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Three Sisters
Directed by Wang Bing
Hong Kong/France, 2012

Wang Bing’s epic-length documentary is an intimate depiction of childhood in the context of extreme poverty, providing an observational portrait of a Chinese peasant family. In a remote mountain village in China’s Yunnan province, which borders Burma, the every-day lives of the three youngest members of a multi-generational farming family consists of aiding their grandfather and operating an existence that should be well beyond their years. The eldest of the three girls, ten year-old Yingying, has the most responsibility and is the most stretched in terms of sadly necessary physical demands. Her sisters – aged four and six respectively – are largely spared of most tasks for now, but their lives are little more than just the process of surviving each day. Their mother has abandoned the family, while their father is attempting to find work elsewhere in cities far away; places less stuck in time and that receive considerably more attention from those who run and revamp the country. The vast majority of the film takes place on the farm and in the surrounding homes and mountains, though there are some diversions to the school Yingying is sometimes able to attend.

Throughout the film, we follow the activities of each of the girls – and the father when he is present – through lengthy, unbroken shots as they perform long, often arduous tasks. Though gruelling and upsetting to witness, the length and detail of the unbroken shots is crucial. A little girl struggling to chop firewood in an unbroken take lasting minutes has an undeniable difference in power in comparison to, say, a montage that presents both the initial struggle and the final completed product of a woodpile within a matter of seconds. The editing rhythms also serve to avoid placing Three Sisters in the realm of “poverty porn” filmmaking, fictional examples of which are becoming increasingly criticised and parodied, as in the strong recent satire The Woman in the Septic Tank.

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Through abstaining from sculpting what is documented through the editing, the lives presented are free from manipulation. This is also aided by the lack of any interview structure, despite Bing, the presumed cameraman, being present at all times. One could be forgiven for thinking the first stretch of Three Sisters might be some fictional recreation with a documentary aesthetic; Bing has past fictional recreation work in his own filmography for one thing, but an instance like the film’s first appearance of the father feels like a plausibly deliberate obstruction of the opening 45 minutes’ status quo, especially since the reason for his absence is withheld until a later conversation.

The notion is dispersed not long after when the youngest girl, Fenfen, says “You got here first” to the camera that has just documented her exiting a building. It is then during an upwards hill trek to a bus pick-up point that Bing’s (now heavy) breathing can finally be heard, and the bus driver calls attention to the father and two of the girls (Fenfen and Zhenzhen, the six year old) arriving with the accompaniment of a man filming them. This is the beginning of a stretch of the film where the father leaves the village once more to find work, this time taking his two youngest with him. Yingying must now not only continue her work but also live alone in the family’s one-room home.

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The compositions of Bing’s shots also do much to aid the feel of the film. People and place are given equal importance in very wide angle shots; combine this with each take’s length and the quality one gets is that of an almost perpetually meditative plunge into life in this village. One such key moment is when the camera follows Yingying, otherwise alone, as she ventures on a high hillside. She is only a few yards away from the camera in this sequence in which she pauses, sits and absorbs the valley before her, and Bing’s framing and editing allows the viewer to also process this view she witnesses. It is a scene, if one can even describe this as a work of scenes, which exemplifies the film’s stark, striking simplicity.

Josh Slater-Williams

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