It’s the Chinese state bureaucracy vs. a strong-willed female farmer, and the result is an uneasy standoff in Feng Yan’s beautifully observed doc, “Bingai.” A worthy addition to the Mainland’s astonishing onrush of nonfiction films that take measure of the human scale in Chinese life, pic is a 10-years-in-the-making labor of love that contains telling details about what it’s like for subsistence farmers to function under stifling governmental controls. Fests far and wide will find this a strong aud title, with most likely buyers in cable and vid.
The controversial construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Hubei province was a starting point for Feng’s project. But in flinty farmer Zhang Bingai, Feng has found a personal focus for the considerable human cost imposed on residents living near the dam. Area isn’t far from the locale of Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life,” which also concentrates on individual lives rather than the larger community; the major difference is that while Jia’s characters return to the region after the dam nears completion, Bingai never leaves — even though the river flooding could destroy her family’s way of life.
She makes it clear during lensing’s early phase in 1996 that she didn’t marry hubby Yunjian out of love, but convenience. Relocation begins in the same year for her neighbors in Guilin village, and her brother-in-law has signed a relocation contract with the cadre that governs the village. Bingai balks at the poor terms of the contract, though, and insists that if they are to move above the river’s future water level, she must be compensated with arable land.
It sounds humble enough, but Bingai’s demands consume an unbelievably protracted six more years. For those on the political left, any lingering romanticization of communism and collectivization might be shattered by the film, which calmly observes how a system intended to create equity among poor farmers has fostered a static, dumb bureaucracy that leaves its poorest behind. Bingai minces no words in her contempt for local officials, and the pic’s ample accusations of corruption may make it next to impossible to see (at least outside the realm of pirated DVDs) on the Mainland.
Feng is equally interested in Bingai’s personal life, and the many quiet, wordless passages are broken up by remarkably frank monologues about her marriage, forlorn wedding and many abortions — one as late as six months into the pregnancy — as a result of the two-kid national limit and faulty contraception methods. Unlike her sickly husband, Bingai literally carries the family’s well-being on her back, and her hardiness turns her into a most unique heroine.
Vid lensing (by Feng and Feng Wenze) is in the classic tradition of direct cinema, with the camera ever-present, refusing to shirk from embarrassing or emotionally raw moments. The massive Three Gorges project remains in the background, so much so that Western viewers unaware of the dam might not realize its scale and implications.