Having dealt at length with China’s “anti-rightist” campaign in his epic documentary “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir,” Wang Bing continues to probe the devastating consequences of this little-aired historical chapter in his first narrative feature, “The Ditch.” Though a brisk jaunt at 112 minutes compared with Wang’s three-hour “Fengming” and nine-hour “West of the Tracks,” this powerful realist treatment offers a brutally prolonged immersion in the labor camps where numerous so-called dissidents were sent in the late 1950s. Result makes for blunt, arduous but gripping viewing that will be in demand at festivals, particularly human-rights events, and in broadcast play.
From 1956-57, Chinese intellectuals were advised to contribute their opinions on national policy issues under Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. The movement backfired, to say the least, and thousands of citizens, labeled “right-wing deviants” for their criticism of the Communist Party, were sentenced to forced labor in the Gobi Desert under conditions so inhumane that death from starvation, exhaustion or illness was the norm.
“The Ditch” makes only glancing reference to the political events that precipitated the anti-rightist movement, and the film’s minimal context and thinly sketched characters could be read as a broad condemnation of atrocities and abuses perpetrated in any country, even if Wang’s grueling depiction of this sun-bleached no-man’s land could hardly be more specific or exacting in its re-creation of physical details.
Set over a three-month period in 1960, at the Mingshui annex of Jiabiangou Re-education Camp, the film observes as a new group of men arrive, are assigned to sleep in a miserable underground dugout (euphemistically described as “Dormitory 8”) and begin the long, slow process of dying. The work is intense, but hunger is the prisoners’ chief struggle as well as the film’s main preoccupation. Rats are eaten as a matter of course, consumption of human corpses is not unheard of, and, in the most stomach-churning moment, one man happily helps himself to another’s vomit. Eating seems a compulsion rather than a sign of any real will to survive, and new bodies are dragged out daily, making room for fresh arrivals.
Drawn from a novel by Yang Xianhui and interviews Wang conducted with survivors (one of whom, Li Xiangnian, is credited with a “special appearance” as one of the prisoners), the film has an overpowering feel of unfiltered reality that persists even as tightly framed dramatic moments begin to emerge. Admirers of Wang’s documentaries know his ability to capture real moments of extraordinary intimacy, and the sense of verisimilitude here is so strong that those walking in unawares may at first think they’re watching another piece of highly observant reportage — never mind that no filmmaker would ever have been granted access, just as no humane documentarian could have kept the camera rolling without offering his subjects a scrap of food at the very least.
The film eventually comes to center on the friendship between two men, Xiao Li (Lu Ye) and Lao Dong (Yang Haoyu); when Lao’s wife, Gu (Xu Cenzi), comes to visit him from Shanghai, her arrival (the circumstances of which resemble those described in “Fengming”) rips a hole in the narrative fabric. The second half is almost entirely unmodulated in its portrayal of suffering, and the illusion of realism Wang has conjured falters a bit, due in part to Xu’s despairing wail of a performance — wrenching, to be sure, but also tied to a recognizable tradition of Chinese melodrama. When the film pauses to makes occasional points about the officials in charge and their strictly pragmatic view of who lives and dies, the strain is noticeable.
Dramatically, “The Ditch” is as arid and unrelenting as the setting it depicts, and its commingling of anguish and anger is far from subtle. But this may be the only way to properly dramatize and empathize with these men’s experience; if barely two hours seem unendurable, three months defeat the imagination.
Lu Sheng’s outstanding 35mm lensing captures the desert’s terrible beauty, yet his handheld camera is also capable of great sensitivity as it prowls the sleeping area or follows the men as they forage for food. Marie-Helene Dozo’s editing, Zhang Fuli’s set design and Wang Fuzheng’s costumes round out a seamless tech package.