Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Docu-memoir: Fengming

In his latest documentary, Wang Bing only uses one camera, which he hardly ever moves. Rather than dazzle the audience with dramatic cinematography and rapid-fire edits, he focuses like a laser beam on his subject, He Fengming, as she tells her traumatic life story, simply and directly for Wang’s camera, in Fengming: a Chinese Memoir. Opening this Friday in New York at the Anthology Film Archives, it is an intensely personal film which takes on truly epic dimensions.

For those who persist in idolizing Mao, this film will come as an uncomfortable corrective. While He Fengming certainly suffered during the Cultural Revolution, which Mao apologists prefer to blame solely on the Gang of Four, her troubles began in 1957, with the advent of his Anti-Rightist Campaign. She had considered herself an ardent and loyal Communist, who had voluntarily withdrawn from college to serve the Party’s Lanzhou newspaper. Yet she still found herself on the receiving end of their so-called “struggle sessions” when she refused to denounce her husband, Wang Jingchao. His crime was to believe the rhetoric of the previous Hundred Flowers Campaign and subsequently publish an essay critical of the corrupt government bureaucracy. This mistake would directly lead to the incarceration of both husband and wife in work camps, and ultimately result in his premature death.

One of the greatest tragedies of Fengming is how badly she and Wang wanted to believe in the Party, despite its accusations and abuse. While they had the option of forestalling their “rehabilitation,” both were eager to regain the Party’s good graces as soon as possible. Ruefully she observes: “That’s how simple we were. If I’d known how it would end, I’d have never let him go to that camp—it was a death sentence.” As an alleged ringleader of the mythical “Rightists,” Wang was sentenced to the western sounding Dry Gulch work camp, one of the worst of the worst. As a lesser conspirator in the fabricated “Black Clique,” she was sent to the comparatively survivable Number 10 Collective Farm outside of Anxi.

By 1960, rumors of famine at Dry Gulch reached He Fengming. Knowing the Anti-Rightist Campaign was on its way out the Party cadres surprised her by granting her request to visit to her husband. She proceeds to describe her arduous journey, enduring extreme elements in hopes of bringing him emergency provisions. Of course, the audience has an ominous feeling how it will end. In its infinite magnanimity, the Party eventually declared her and her fellow alleged Rightists “rehabilitated” in 1961, only to force her to repeat her ordeal again a few years later during the Cultural Revolution.

Filmed in long continuous shots, interrupted only for restroom breaks or to turn up the lights, Fengming resembles Holocaust oral histories, both in terms of style and horrific subject matter. Ambitious in its truth-telling rather than its filmmaking, Wang’s documentary requires an audience with a well-developed attention-span. Those who can acclimate to its visual sparseness will find Fengming heartbreaking and absorbing, as it chronicles a genuine love story cut short by runaway ideology. Fengming is an important cinematic document, highly recommended for intelligent audiences. It begins a limited three day run at AFA this Friday.