The original title of Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Chinese Portrait” means “My Lens” in Mandarin, and indeed the director’s unconventional documentary reflects his personal vision of his home country. Inspired by portraiture in still photography and painting, Wang traveled from eastern cities (Beijing and Shanghai) to northwestern areas, such as Qinhai province (populated by Tibetans) and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (home of Muslim people of the Hui minority), and carefully composed dozens of images, poignant, mysterious, or ironical. Shot over seven years and deftly assembled by French editor Valérie Loiseleux (who has worked with Manoel de Oliveira, among others), they add up to the mosaic portrait of a post-socialist China in the throes of major upheavals.
Nothing is improvised in Wang’s static, precisely framed tableaux. The sitters were obviously asked to pose, stay motionless, and stare forward, creating a tension between stillness and unexpected movement. The compositions are rich with multiple layers; they explore the depth of the cinematic space, and suggest invisible presences at the edge of the frame. In one shot, a woman holds a bleating lamb; behind her, the rest of the herd is gathered by a Mongolian yurt (or tent), while further back stands a wagon trailer, evoking the modernization of nomadic life.
In another, two young boys wearing white Muslim kufi hats mind a small food stall; on the right, an unseen man talks to them through an open window; the oldest boy responds with a smile, resumes the pose, then pops his bubble gum. Wang eschews narration and records the rare, muted conversations as another layer of ambient sound. Words are not subtitled, and the shots address the spectators at a sensorial rather than intellectual level.
At times, Wang plays with the presence, absence, or invisibility of human bodies. Many shots of urban ruins, crumbling industrial buildings, country roads or polluted waves are devoid of human presence. The operator of a hydraulic destruction hammer attacking a disused factory remains hidden within his cockpit. Often bodies are anonymous (city crowds, workers in huge workshops or immense office spaces) or too far in the cinematic field to be identified.
Even so, Wang keeps returning to the portraiture, sometimes humorously planting himself in the center of the space: Wearing an anti-pollution facemask, he stands in front of the iconic Rem Koolhaas CCTV building, barely visible in the smog. The images echo the work of Walker Evans, Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” or Chantal Akerman’s landscapes. The painterly reference becomes clear when the artist Liu Xiaodong appears in front of a group of seven young women sitting together in the ruined landscape of post-earthquake Sichuan.
Internationally famous for his large-scale compositions representing marginalized populations, Liu has long been in dialogue with Sixth Generation directors about the fine line that separates realism from artifice. (Wang cast the artist in his 1993 feature, “The Days,” and Jia Zhangke’s 2006 “Dong” documents his work.)
A crossover between the film and art worlds, “Chinese Portrait” started as a video installation at the 2010 Shanghai Biennial, and was later featured at the Minsheng Art Museum in 2014, before the shooting continued till 2017. During that time Wang (a 2005 Jury Prize winner at Cannes) worked on two ambitious films, “Red Amnesia” and “So Long My Son” (which won two acting prizes at the most recent Berlinale) that explore the traces left by history on the multifarious Chinese landscape. An image of “Chinese Portrait,” filmed in a small southern fishing town, echoes a moment of “So Long My Son.”
In the penultimate shot, a group of men and women are standing on a parched, cracked land, their empty pails posed at their feet. They are dressed simply, yet somewhat formally, and, with quiet dignity, stare back at us. In the foreground, a woman and a little boy are crouching. The boy is having a hard time keeping the pose. He looks around, then down, moves his body, and eventually yawns. The shot foregrounds the ethical pitfalls of documentary portraiture. When the drought victims return the gaze of the camera, does it alleviate the imbalance of power? Should a little boy have to crouch for the duration of a long photo shoot?
In this haunting, precisely choreographed tableau, Wang reaches an apex in the tension between stillness and unplanned movement. The sitters’ dignity and the boy’s implicit resistance are now woven into the texture of the film. While this can be read as a metaphor for the relationship between citizens and government in China today, it confirms Wang’s stature as one of the country’s most significant filmmakers, one with the courage to pose disturbing questions.