Americans like to think our strength lies in our diversity. Chinese propaganda prefers to extoll unity, despite the breadth of its varied ethnicities. As a filmmaker accustomed to going his own way, Wang Xiaoshuai paints a more diverse picture of contemporary Mainland China in Chinese Portrait, which screens during this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.
Comprised of often-posed, narration-free snippets of everyday people Wang shot on the fly since 2009, Portrait is a series of just that—which come together to form a somewhat Whitman-esque mosaic of contemporary China. There are miners, nomads, students, rural laborers, commuters, and even journalists, most of whom clearly bear signs of the weathering of a hardscrabble life. It is not an overtly political film, but Wang’s inclinations are far more inclusive than anything you will see in popular Chinese cinema. Hence, we see multiple portraits of the Muslim Uyghurs, as well as a Buddhist monk (presumably a Tibetan on a pilgrimage).
Wang has a long history of struggling with Communist state censorship in its various manifestations, most notably with his debut, The Days, but his loose thematic Cultural Revolution Trilogy was not exactly welcomed with open arms either. There is not a lot to explicitly antagonize the censors this time around, but Wang’s self-portraits standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square or beclouded by the thick smog of Beijing offer up some slyly coded commentary nonetheless.
Portrait is definitely a minor work for Wang, but it always counts as a victory when he can get a film produced and released. There are some striking images, but that is really the extent of the film. In the case of the newsroom tableaux, the journalists hold their poses so well, viewers might think the playback is frozen, until the fellow in the foreground moves his head.
Arguably, this is a case where the more viewers know about Wang, the more interesting the film will be, because of what they might read into it. Narrowly recommended for Wang’s admirers and patrons of installation-style filmmaking, Chinese Portrait screens this Wednesday (2/27) as part of the 2019 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.