You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Three Sisters

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.

With: Sun Yingying, Sun Zhenzhen, Sun Fenfen, Sun Shunbao, Sun Xianliang, Zhu Fulian, Liu Kaimen. (Mandarin dialogue)

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.

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.

Three Sisters

France-Hong Kong

Production: An Album Prods., Chinese Shadows production, in association with Arte France, La Lucarne, Fuori Orario, Rai Cinema. (International sales: Chinese Shadows, Paris.) Produced by Sylvie Faguer, Mao Hui. Directed by Wang Bing.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Huang Wenhai, Li Peifeng, Wang Bing; editor, Adam Kerby, Wang Bing; sound, Fu Kang; line producer, Wang Yang; assistant directors, Zheng Yi, Lu Xianhui. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 6, 2012. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Wavelengths.) Running time: 153 MIN.

Cast: With: Sun Yingying, Sun Zhenzhen, Sun Fenfen, Sun Shunbao, Sun Xianliang, Zhu Fulian, Liu Kaimen. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Scene

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream hosted by AT&T and from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. More Reviews TV Review: 'Black [...]

  • Emile Hirsch, Matt SmileyEmile Hirsch hosts

    Emile Hirsch Hosts Smiley Face Art Opening at Mondrian Hotel

    Despite the rain on Wednesday night in West Hollywood, there were plenty of smiles inside the Mondrian hotel thanks to artist Matt Smiley‘s Refresh exhibition. Not only is Smiley his real last name, but several of his paintings and other pieces in the exhibit feature smiley faces. More Reviews TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' Album [...]

  • Randall Park, left, and Constance Wu

    Constance Wu Wants Her 'Fresh Off the Boat' Co-Star Randall Park to Host the Oscars

    While the Academy may have decided to go hostless for this year’s Oscars, that doesn’t mean the rest of Hollywood has stopped thinking about who would be a good choice for the emceeing gig. Former host Whoopi Goldberg recently suggested Ken Jeong. More Reviews TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' Album Review: Maggie Rogers' 'Heard It [...]

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. More Reviews TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' Album Review: Maggie [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. More Reviews TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising' Album Review: Maggie Rogers' 'Heard It in [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content