Wang Bing likes his films long: there is something crucial in the weight of testimony, the comprehensive document, the absolute courtesy to participants. Dead Souls, coming in at more than eight hours, presents the targets of the 1957 Chinese Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign. Using footage from 2005 through to 2017, the work offers a platform for the survivors’ memories, these compromised by the sheer fact of their survival.
Due to editorial commitments it was only possible for this reviewer to watch the first hour, so a fair appraisal isn’t possible. But in those 60 minutes Wang Bing gives us an ageing couple, a bed-bound octogenarian and an almost farcical, harrowing funeral scene. Death is an oppression, while the necessity to record and recollect is given due urgency.
Of the couple, the man dominates the conversation. He speaks of ill treatment, anguish and starvation in the “re-education camps”. We glimpse the peculiar horror of the camps, the exceptional space demarcated for inhumanity. The man methodically describes his prison experience, mathematically outlining lengths, widths, distance travelled, his language informed by life as a Nationalist soldier. His wife barely gets a word in, but she colours his dry aggrandisement, providing wit and empathy. He disregards and speaks over her.
The debilitated old man who follows brings to mind Wang Bing’s last effort, the relatively spry Mrs Fang, and the depiction of elderly ailments remains just as unsentimental. The camera lingers on the hollow face, the clucking of his tongue amplified to a trauma. Similarly, the funeral is punctuated with shrieks from a grieving son, his parents once survivors now meeting a natural end. The coffin nearly falls off the labyrinthine cliff edge, before being comically lowered into a clumsily dug, cavernous grave. Grief is perverse, if nothing else.
Comparisons will be drawn with Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust documentary Shoah, and the requirement to remember is as relevant as ever. Camps show us the worst, and compiling testimony – however incomplete, however skewed, however meagre – remains the only response. The campaign against “ultra-rightists” is one of many instances of modern totalitarianism and persecution. Wang Bing’s slow-burn documentary honours the victims while preserving the horror.
Dead Souls does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Dead Souls here: