“Well, I guess I’ll start at the beginning.”
The opening words spoken in Wang Bing’s film “He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” are humble ones. But what follows is a record of cataclysmic times in postwar China, recounted by Ms. He, a survivor of forced labor camps. She methodically speaks of how it happened, how she was separated from her husband, all while seated in her cluttered, dimly lit, utterly ordinary home.
The result is by turns shattering and sedate — a testimony that one critic called “both a cry of pain and a sigh of relief.”
“He Fengming” screened at Cannes in 2007, the same year as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “No Country for Old Men.” Now Mr. Wang returns to the festival with a work that gives voice to more living veterans of history like Ms. He. “Dead Souls,” his new documentary, has its world premiere this week, clocking in at 8 hours 15 minutes.
“The only objective is to obtain, from their memories, the knowledge of the people who can no longer speak of what they went through,” Mr. Wang said in an interview.
The subjects of “Dead Souls” were condemned in the Communist Party’s “anti-rightist” campaign in the 1950s. Like Ms. He, they were imprisoned, enslaved and starved in “re-education” camps like Jiabiangou in the Gobi Desert.
“Dead Souls” is only the latest film in an ambitious, outsize oeuvre that seems to take Frederick Wiseman as the benchmark for capturing the experience of a nation.
Mr. Wang’s previous works include his gargantuan chronicle of obsolescent factories and their workers, “West of the Tracks,” which The New York Times called a “nine-hour masterpiece.” His 14-hour installation “Crude Oil” tracked the process of oil extraction. “Mrs. Fang,” his most recent, is a comparatively brief (86 minutes) but devastating elegy of an older woman’s final days.
Mr. Wang sits at the pinnacle of the Chinese documentary groundswell that arose with the country’s social and economic upheaval in the 1990s. Last year, he won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno film festival, bestowed by a jury led by the filmmaker Olivier Assayas. His work has premiered in Berlin, Venice (garnering another prize), and Documenta (which has also commissioned projects of his), with retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou and the Harvard Film Archive.
1990年代正值中国社会和经济动荡时期，中国纪录片随之迅速高涨，王兵的作品居于其巅峰。去年，他在洛迦诺电影节(Locarno film festival)获得由电影人奥利维耶·阿萨亚斯(Olivier Assayas)领导的评审团颁发的金豹奖。他的作品在柏林电影节、威尼斯电影节（他在该电影节获得另一奖项）和国际艺术文献展（也是其多个项目的委约方）首映，并在蓬皮杜艺术中心和哈佛电影资料馆做过回顾展映。
“Wang brings us inside the world he is chronicling so thoroughly that, if we watch it in one go, we are apt to lose track of what things outside are like,” the critic Luc Sante wrote of Mr. Wang’s “epic and intimate” cinema.
“‘Fengming’ stands alongside first-person precedents like Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967) and Errol Morris’s ‘The Fog of War’ (2004) in its ability to wrest powerful effects from the deceptively simple setup of a lone raconteur,” the critic Ed Halter wrote. Other admirers include the filmmakers Jia Zhangke, Arnaud Desplechin and Pedro Costa.
“《和凤鸣》与雪莉·克拉克(Shirley Clarke)的《杰森的画像》(Portrait of Jason, 1967)、埃罗尔·莫里斯(Errol Morris)的《战争迷雾》(The Fog of War, 2004)等先例一样，使用第一人称叙事，因而能够从一个孤独的故事讲述者看似简单的环境中制造强有力的效果，”评论家艾德·霍尔特(Ed Halter)写道。王兵的仰慕者还包括电影人贾樟柯、阿诺·德斯普利钦(Arnaud Desplechin)和佩德罗·科斯塔(Pedro Costa)。
For his part, Mr. Wang can sound very modest about his continuing document of Chinese history.
“In China, my life is like that of all the other normal Chinese,” Mr. Wang said. “I am one of the many from the normal class. So I filmed these people.”
Mr. Wang was born in the north of China in 1967, after the events chronicled in “Dead Souls.” Initially studying photography, he went on to the Beijing Film Academy, part of the same generation as Mr. Jia (who also has a film at Cannes this year). Mr. Wang gorged himself on the directors Antonioni, Bergman, and Tarkovsky (partly thanks to a professor who brought thousands of videotapes from abroad), with Pasolini close to his heart.
“West of the Tracks,” with its view of Chinese heavy industry in decline, put a spotlight on Mr. Wang in 2003. The film announced an artist with a mission to catch major epochs and small moments before they disappeared.
“Dead Souls” is no different. Shot from 2005 to 2017, it covers most of China’s provinces and entailed visits to more than 120 survivors of re-education camps. Mr. Wang’s goal was to preserve memories before they disappeared, in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental “Shoah.”
“What happened in the Jiabiangou labor camps was a page unknown in the Chinese history,” Mr. Wang said of the project, which at an early stage was titled “Past in the Present.” “Of course, it’s not only a tragedy of China, but also one of the numerous terrible catastrophes in human history.”
“在中国的历史上，夹边沟劳教营里发生的故事是不为人知的一页，”王兵在谈起该片时表示。该片原名《现在的过去》(Past in the Present)。“当然，它不只是中国的悲剧，也是人类历史上众多可怕的灾难之一。”
Hard-hitting subject matter can sometimes be a problem for filmmakers facing censorship in China, but this does not seem to have been an obstacle for Mr. Wang.
“I’ve been free to shoot my films in China,” he said, explaining that the low commercial value of his work kept him from submitting them for theatrical release there. (“Mrs. Fang” will screen at next month’s Shanghai International Film Festival.)
“Dead Souls” finds Mr. Wang again embracing the immersive approach that has yielded memorable results: the touching and magical fireside moments with migrants in “Ta’ang,” or the unnervingly free wanderings of children left to fend for themselves in “Three Sisters.” It’s a form of cinema that begins to feel more like living with the people on screen than merely watching them.
For those ready to commit the time and attention, “Dead Souls” will be an oasis of focus amid the many distractions of Cannes.
With his typical cool understatement, Mr. Wang said: “I don’t have particular expectations from the audience. I hope this film can hold the content of the stories I shot. In other words, there is a lot of content in this film. That’s why it’s long.”