×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Mrs. Fang’

A woman dies of Alzheimers in a small Chinese fishing village in slow-cinema auteur Wang Bing's merciless Locarno-winning documentary.

Director:
Wang Bing
With:
(Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7155262/

Who is Mrs. Fang? At the beginning of the Locarno Golden Leopard-winning documentary that bears her name, she is a Chinese woman in her sixties waiting in a hallway. We get no context here, nor in the next shot, as she reacts to a bad smell outside and darts off camera, nor in the next, when she’s standing in a dingy room with two beds in it as well as a fridge, while another figure bustles around with a kettle. Then, across a single, brutal cut, we’re with her some months later, and she now occupies one of the beds. Her advanced Alzheimer’s has shriveled the skin onto her bones, and her face is almost unrecognizable, lips drawn back in a constant rictus, teeth exposed like those in a skull.

Over the course of Chinese director Wang Bing’s atypically short but typically unflinching, challenging, provocative film, we will watch her die. This is filmmaking so unblinking, and so without sentiment that sometimes it requires an effort of will not to wince away from the screen, especially any time Wang returns to that closeup of her skeletal face. And he spends a lot of time with this shot, his camera’s dispassionate eye staring into her glazed ones, giving audiences a lot of time to consider not just the image, not just the woman dying behind those eyes, but the meaning of it.

This level of intimacy skirts the boundaries of prurience and consent. Mrs. Fang is for these last days unable to speak, unable even to move under her own volition, so how can we know how she feels about the filmmakers’ presence, if she’s even aware of it? But it also asks exceptionally uncomfortable questions of us, about why we are so unnerved by the naked evidence of this most natural and inevitable of human processes, about why we want to look away, and why we do not.

Respite from the intensity of these sequences comes in the business that goes on around Fang Xiuying’s prone form. Her adult son and daughter, and other assorted neighbors and relatives come in and out of the room, their plastic sandals scuffling on the cheap linoleum, and discuss her deterioration, her bedsores and breathing, in prosaic terms. There’s the man whose only contribution seems to be noting that she looks very much worse than the last time, the woman who frets about when to dress her in funeral clothes and the gray-haired older lady who stands silent as a sentinel at the foot of her bed. Out the back, the menfolk pull their T-shirts up over their sweating bellies and argue. Nobody ever says “hospital” and it is not until late in the film that the word “doctor” is mentioned, and then it’s a suggestion rapidly shot down.

In addition to being a portrait of death, “Mrs. Fang” is, like all of Wang’s films, concerned with economically challenged, marginalized Chinese life. This ramshackle and impoverished village in the country’s rural south is not a place of bucolic serenity, but scrappy make-do-and-mend. Even the night fishing that supports Mrs. Fang’s family, and which Wang covers in long, tolerance-testing, ultimately hypnotic unbroken takes, has no hint of romance to it. With pylons silhouetted in the background, the men push their little boat along the banks of the sluggish river, to the sporadic, unpleasant buzzing emitted by the sensors on their handheld fishing nets when they detect a catch.

The wilful anti-poetry of the unscored images; the slap of that cut back to Mrs. Fang’s face, which never loses the power to shock; the observation of the crowd that gathers round her bed and stares awhile before dispersing and waiting elsewhere for her to die. This is a merciless film, and whether the process of teasing its meaning out for yourself feels like a punishment or a reward will depend entirely on your patience and your point of view.

So who was Mrs. Fang? It is a maudlin question in which Wang, for all his careful study of her face and form throughout those final days, has little interest. We never learn what she did, who she loved, what made her laugh. Instead, as death settles on her like dusk — so incrementally that her deterioration seems to have no stages, just relentless, seamless decline — Mrs. Fang becomes an abstraction within her own wasted body. The film was never the story of a life, and by its close, it’s not even the story of a death but Death itself: painful, pitiless and unbearably banal.

Film Review: 'Mrs. Fang'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Competition), Aug. 8th, 2017. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (France-China-Germany — Documentary) An Idéale Audience, Wil Prods., All Ways Pictures production, in co-production with documenta 14. (International sales: Idéale Audience, Paris.) Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Yang Wang, Kong Lihong.

Crew: Director, writer: Wang Bing. Camera (color, DCP): Wang Bing, Shan Xiaohui, Ding Bihan. Editors: Wang Bing, Dominique Auvray.

With: (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Late Show With Stephen Colbert' Win Publicity Campaign Awards

    Hollywood publicists have selected “Crazy Rich Asians” as the top movie publicity campaign for 2018 and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” as the best television campaign. Warner Bros.’ “Crazy Rich Asians” topped the campaigns for Disney’s “Black Panther,” Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place,” Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and Universal’s “Halloween” for [...]

  • How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes

    How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes Sports and Showbiz in a Entertaining Mix

    Walking through the El Segundo studio where veteran sportscaster Rich Eisen tapes his daily “Rich Eisen Show,” the sheer density of sports memorabilia is overwhelming — everything from game balls to jerseys, gear, autographs and uncountable photos are crammed onto every inch of wall and desk space. But step into Eisen’s dressing room, and the [...]

  • Tessa Thompson Nnamdi Asomugha

    Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha to Star in 'Sylvie'

    Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha are set to star in the feature film “Sylvie.” Eugene Ashe has written the screenplay and will direct with production currently underway. More Reviews Album Review: Lil Pump's 'Harverd Dropout' Berlin Film Review: 'Stitches' The film is described as a love story set in the cool jazz era of New York [...]

  • Night Fury dragon Toothless and Hiccup

    Box Office: 'How to Train Your Dragon 3' Soaring to $50 Million-Plus Launch

    “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is soaring toward a $53 million launch weekend at 4,259 North American locations, early estimates showed on Friday. That estimate is well above Universal’s forecast in the $40 million range at 4,259 sites — and ahead of its predecessors, 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” which made [...]

  • Actors With Disabilities Deserve a Hollywood

    Dreaming of a Hollywood Ending for Actors With Disabilities (Guest Column)

    Picture a world in which an actor with a disability wins an Academy Award. Sadly, that storyline remains no more than a Hollywood fantasy. In recent years, the #OscarsSoWhite trending hashtag campaign has shed light on the lack of diversity in the movie industry. Yet ahead of this year’s Oscars on Feb. 24, society’s definition [...]

  • Clark Gable III

    Clark Gable's Grandson, Who Hosted 'Cheaters,' Found Dead at 30

    Clark Gable’s grandson, Clark Gable III, died on Friday morning at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Variety confirmed with the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office. He was 30. “It’s is with an extremely heavy heart we say goodbye to my beautiful son Clark,” his mother wrote on Instagram. “He passed this morning. I will always [...]

  • You Were Never Really Here If

    Film Independent's Spirit Awards Fly the Flag for Indie Film

    As the 2018 awards season marches slowly into its final days, only a handful of honors remain undistributed after some of the most volatile and contentious campaigns in years. Front-runners have come and gone in one major category after the next, as each guild and critics group announced different winners than its predecessors, demolishing expectations [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content