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Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

Once a manufacturing epicenter, the Tie Xi district in Northeastern China fell victim to factory closures and changes in policy in regard to government-backed industry in the late 1990s. Wang Bing's extraordinary "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks" charts this decay in painstaking detail. Wang's exhaustive study unfolds over a massive running time.

Once a manufacturing epicenter, the Tie Xi district in Northeastern China fell victim to multiple factory closures and changes in policy in regard to government-backed industry in the late 1990s. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, Wang Bing’s extraordinary “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” charts this decay in painstaking detail, providing a vivid picture of the schism in contemporary China — between communist legacy and capitalist leanings. Wang’s exhaustive three-part study unfolds over a massive running time (nearly 10 hours). And if the film is somewhat too long (one senses it would be ideal at around eight hours), it’s surprisingly broad in its appeal, not limited to the China expert. Unquestionably difficult to program, pic will likely be limited to festival and tube exposure, where many viewers will find themselves hypnotized by its density and artistic integrity. Pic will have its U.S. premiere May 24-25 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Subtitled “Rust,” part one of this epic journey runs 245 minutes and depicts the day-to-day routine in three separate Tie Xi factories: Shenyang Smelting Factory, Shenyang Electrical Cable Factory and Shenyang Sheet Metal Factory.

Riding from one factory to the next along a freight railway, Wang disembarks to spend considerable time with the workers at each locale. His marvelously exploratory camera-eye reveals steamy break rooms where workers unwind between shifts; materials receiving rooms where backbreaking loading and unloading goes on in an unending cycle; and the factory floor itself, where the clang and drone of labor commences under the searing monotony of red, overhead lighting.

These are desperate times. All three factories are near bankruptcy and will be closing soon. Wang can seem as or more entranced by the physical processes of smelting and plating, and by the ghostly specter of the factories — ashen, snow-banked corpses strewn across a wintry landscape — as by the human lives before him.

The individual workers are rarely identified beyond the groups they comprise within the factory hierarchies. Yet, the viewer gets pulled into their stories, begins to recognize certain individuals, and gets a sense of the intense camaraderie among these workers, who also play and bathe together (and, quite likely, see more of each other than they do their own families).

The 178-minute second section, “Remnants,” travels farther down the railway to the ironically named Rainbow Row, a government housing block of shacks and muddied dirt roads where the workers from “Rust” live (or, more fittingly, spend their time away from work). Here, Wang turns his attention to the workers’ teenage children, hitting upon an assortment of personalities so colorful and compelling they seem to have sprung from the mind of Jia Zhangke. And while Wang draws some parallels between the group dynamic of these friends and that of the workers in “Rust,” “Remnants” is much more a study of individuals and, specifically, that eternal teenage struggle to discover one’s individuality, that desperate desire to become other than one’s own parents.

Like Zhang Yang’s “Shower” and Chen Kaige’s “100 Flowers Hidden Deep,” the major concern of “Remnants” is the government-sponsored redevelopment of working-class neighborhoods throughout China. Soon, Rainbow Row will be demolished; those living there will either relocate to small, inferior apartments or stay on until the bitter end, with no particular plan in mind.

Finally, in the 133-minute conclusion, “Rails,” the subject is the railway itself, the train and the homeless drifters who make their living as scavengers along the line. Part of the “sent-down” generation, one-eyed Du has been working (a combination of scavenging and doing odd jobs for the railroad) in this way for more than 20 years, now living with his two sons in a makeshift freight-yard shed. As factory upon factory is razed, the train becomes a ghost locomotive and Du a ghastly apparition upon it. As the story of Du and his sons looms particularly harrowing and prescient, a dinner scene between Du — who has just been released from prison for stealing coal — and son Du Yang explodes with wild, irrational human emotion.

From the Loach-like realism of “Rust” to the adolescent anomie of “Remnants” and the high, nearly stylized melodrama of “Rust,” individual scenes resonate deeply although nothing in the film is staged or scripted. Much to the contrary, Wang and his camera drop so imperceptibly into the background of their environs that the on-camera subjects effuse an unselfconsciousness that is all but forgotten in the age of reality TV.

Wang demonstrates a remarkable knack for uncovering the dramatic in (rather than imposing it on) the everyday, all the while maintaining a supremely elegant, tableau-like camera style that surveys the action with an extraordinary sense of composition and space.

There’s an attention to aesthetics in “West of the Tracks,” particularly in the use of color, that recalls the work of Errol Morris. This is particularly impressive in that Wang shot on digital video while functioning as a veritable one-man crew. The early factory scenes employ a saturated, near-Technicolor palate, while the open-air village scenes of “Remnants” adopt a more realistic, but no less lustrous scheme. Finally, there is the grimy, moonlit claustrophobia of “Rust,” richly enhancing pic’s theme of things closing down, closing in and ending.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

China

  • Production: Produced, directed by Wang Bing.
  • Crew: Camera (color, digital video), Wang; editors, Wang, Adam Kerdy; sound, Chen Chen, Han Bing. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival, Jan. 28-31, 2003. Running time: 556 MIN.