Men at work have rarely been more starkly depicted onscreen than in Yu Guangyi’s “Timber Gang,” a visceral look at a struggling logging camp in northeast China’s Changbai Mountains. A complete filmmaking novice, Yu took his small digital vidcamera and became the veritable mouse in the corner, following a crew of loggers during the 2004-05 winter. Result is pure, unadorned cinema verite, with honest insight into the nearly pre-industrial conditions that many in China’s poorer regions still live with. Fests, cinematheques and doc cablers should line up for this gem, which taps into current Western interest for all things Chinese.
Pic begins at the start of the arduous logging season in December, with a four-hour trek from the workers’ homes uphill into Black Bear Valley. Deep snowdrifts prove nearly too much for trucks, but not for the crews’ hard-working horses, which drag sleighs stacked with logs from the forest. A ritual sacrifice to the mountain gods before work begins is a moment for reflection and a bit of fun — and in such moments, Yu is able to encapsulate this complicated world of ancient beliefs, local economy and male camaraderie.
Doc has a downright Hawksian vibe during several passages, including several campfire interludes and a hilarious sequence in which a pig’s head is baked by a fairly inept camp cook. These bits are superbly paced with pic’s numerous and consistently astonishing sequences depicting the back-breaking daytime work in deep, bitterly cold snow. (Reason for winter as logging season is purely practical: Snow and ice make it easier for horses to pull the logs.)
“Timber Gang” will remind adventurous doc viewers of Wang Bing’s masterpiece about industrial workers, “West of the Tracks,” and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Elsewhere” (and to a certain extent, his recent “Our Daily Bread”) as extremely intimate, physical views of arduous work, and the emotional and cultural impact such work can have on groups and individuals. The deaths of some of the crew’s horses may be too much for some to watch, but are a necessary aspect of what the loggers must endure if they’re to manage their seasonal timber harvest.
Pic concludes with two developments — one of which won’t be revealed here — that lift this account to the level of tragedy. Yu follows a set of logs from Black Bear Valley back to the village and observes as they’re sawed, sanded and then molded into a large coffin, after which the town’s youngest baby is passed through the unmade coffin in a longtime local ritual. Coffin is then actually put to use, when, on the same March day that the crew finishes the harvest, a retired logger dies.
Cycles of life and death and seasons build to a quietly emotional crescendo that raises pic to a sublime level, all the more remarkable given that this is Yu’s debut. Digital shooting is appropriately raw and unrefined, with direct recorded sound a major contribution to the film’s immersive power.