Thursday, September 14, 2017

TIFF ’17: Mrs. Fang

Fang Xiuying is sort of like a Chinese Mr. Lazarescu, but her passing is much less drawn out. She was also a real person. After years of faithfully documenting life in China as it really happens, Wang Bing finally captures some death in the brief (by his standards) but discomfiting Mrs. Fang (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Mrs. Fang has suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, so when death finally comes, it will probably be a relief for her. Certainly, most of her family will feel that way too. They have all duly assembled for her final moments, but they are starting to get restless. Most of them are obviously annoyed by this ritual, but a handful look genuinely distraught. However, the former take great delight in criticizing one of her grandsons, who will no doubt take flak for his absence at every family gathering going forward.

At a mere eighty-six minutes, Mrs. Fang practically qualifies as a short subject compared to Wang’s previous films, like the nearly four-hour ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and the nine-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. However, it displays the same uncomfortably intimate aesthetics. Frankly, it is hard to look at Mrs. Fang’s face, because she has essentially wasted away, leaving her desiccated features tightly drawn-looking. Yet, Wang forces us to look, with long, extended close-ups.

It is almost impossible to not feel intrusive while watching these final personal moments. Yet, it is important to take into account Wang was filming with the full cooperation of her adult children and he had met his silent subject well before her health declined so sharply (however, she had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by the time of their first encounter).

Like many of Wang’s documentaries, Mrs. Fang is not expressly political, but it is hard to imagine it getting any noticeable theatrical release in Mainland China, since any censor worth their salt would recognize it is just bad for Party business. As a resident of Maihui Village Zhejiang Province from 1948 to 2016, Mrs. Fang lived under mean circumstances and she died under mean circumstances. That is an incontestable truth that comes through loud and clear in Wang’s film.

In fact, Wang’s films are always about getting at truths, through patient observation. Mrs. Fang is not as emotionally engaging as Ta’ang, Fengmeng: A Chinese Memoir, or Three Sisters, but it is more substantial and compelling than his previous shorty, Father and Sons, which was cut short by outside interference. Recommended for admirers of boundary-pushing documentaries, Mrs. Fang screens again tomorrow (9/15), as part of this year’s TIFF.