Returning to his docu roots following “The Ditch,” maverick helmer Wang Bing offers a relatively modest running time of two-and-a-half hours devoted to lice-infested, dung-collecting kids in a remote Yunnan village. “Three Sisters” is an unquestionably eye-opening, deeply human, strikingly lensed look at an impoverished family whose rudimentary living conditions are a sharp riposte to the illusion of China’s economic boom. More accessible than Wang’s previous docus, it’s still too long to attract all but confirmed devotees — a pity, since trimming would sharpen impact and increase exposure beyond Sinophile film nerds and scattered human-rights fests.
Wang shot for six months in the village of Xi Yang Tang, a muddy collection of cob-walled dwellings housing about 80 families along with free roaming farm animals. Electricity generally consists of a solitary bulb that barely illuminates the dirt floors; water comes from a trickling faucet outside, and potatoes are the chief staple for humans and animals alike. Cell phones have barely made an incursion, while wind whips the stepped hills with a chilling consistency.
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The three sisters of the title are Yingying (10), Zhenzhen (6) and Fenfen (4), daughters of Sun Shunbao, a peasant abandoned by his wife. Sun scrapes for work in the nearest town of Tonghai, leaving his young daughters alone for weeks or months at a time. Their grandfather Sun Xianliang and aunt Zhu Fulian live just across the dirt path, but interaction is minimal and hardly warm; Yingying keeps herself and her sisters going via back-breaking chores involving animal herding, dung collecting and potato gathering.
The sisters have distinct personalities, with Zhenzhen the mischievous giggler and Fenfen the slightly forlorn follower. Yingying is the sad one, the burden of responsibility lying heavily on her tiny shoulders. Isolated, stern-faced and unbearably lonely, she’s rarely able to go to school, and interactions with cousins and other village peers have a heartrending imperviousness to play or other social exchanges. When her father decides to take the two youngest tots to live with him in town, Yingying remains behind, a pathetic figure seen in a restricted pool of indoor light, surrounded by shadowy darkness.
During a rare visit to the girls’ great-uncle in a neighboring village, local elders discuss the emptiness of official talk promising “rural revival.” It’s the one moment where Wang concretizes the kinds of critique made more explicit in “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” (intimate at three hours) and “West of the Tracks” (epic at nine hours). This explicit denunciation, though obviously unscripted, is all but unnecessary given scenes of living conditions that Westerners could only call medieval. From Zhenzhen’s bleeding feet in disintegrating galoshes to the girls’ damp bedding and Yingying’s slight body wrapped in an increasingly filthy hoodie branded “Lovely Diary” on the back, “Three Sisters” presents a vision of unmitigated squalor that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Wang doesn’t conceal occasional acknowledgments of the camera, though there’s no direct interaction as in “Fengming,” and the lensing gets shaky when climbing uphill with Yingying (the cameraman’s panting can be heard). The village’s surrounding harsh terrain, gusty and spotted with patches of snow, has a certain majesty far removed from the squalid dell in which the village sits, traversed by proprietary pigs and glum little girls.
English and Italian subtitles at the Venice screening differed significantly in places.