Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chinese Realities: Though I Am Gone

Wang Qingyao’s words have an eerie resonance.  He is determined that his wife’s murder during the Cultural Revolution will not be denied or forgotten by the guilty and embarrassed parties.  Despite his personal pain, he documented his family’s tragedy with remarkable thoroughness.  It is an acutely personal story, but one with national significance for China that unfolds in Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.

During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing schools were the incubators of the institutionalized insanity.  Unfortunately, Wang’s wife was a middle school vice principal in the wrong city, at the wrong time.  When the Red Guards began terrorizing the country, their children followed their lead.  Even though Bian considered herself a loyal Communist since before 1946, she was forced to endure physical beatings and public humiliations on a daily basis.  Fearing for her family’s safety, Bian resigned herself to the torments.  One day, the students took it too far and rather than taking her to the hospital literally one block away, they just threw her out like a sack of garbage.

Her husband was not on hand to witness the torture she endured.  It only would have made things worse for her.  However, the trained journalist photographed her battered body and saved evidence of her ordeal, including the blood and excrement soaked clothes she wore during her final hours.  Years later, an anonymous source came forward to give him an exact accounting of the events.  Not surprisingly though, only Bian’s fellow victims agreed to participate in Hu’s documentary.

As a filmmaker, Hu’s approach is as simple and straight forward as it can be.  Even eschewing soundtrack music, he focuses his camera on Wang and his photographs, allowing the man to tell her story in his own words.  He also incorporates archival recordings of the state sanctioned madness as well as personal testimony from Bian’s colleagues.

Speaking of the need to bear witness, Wang Qingyao echoes sentiments often heard in Holocaust survivors’ oral histories.  When he eventually produces a photo of the smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium where his wife’s remains were incinerated, the symmetry becomes profoundly unsettling.  While Hu maintains an intimate focus on Bian’s story, he masterfully conveys a sense of how truly representative it was of rampant, widespread horrors.

On a technical level, Though I Am Gone is a simple film, but it is emotionally devastating.  This is an incredibly brave expose of events the Party would prefer to forget.  Highly recommended for general audiences, particularly including middle school aged students, Though I Am Gone (also distributed by dGenerate Films) screens this coming Tuesday (5/28) and the following Saturday (6/1) as part of Chinese Realities at MoMA.