Wang Bing’s films have been high on my watch list for quite some time. West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary, is still waiting for me. But DVDs can be exceptionally patient, more so than humans! I finally got round seeing The Ditch (2010) after a recommendation by Michael Guarneri, who thought that the film’s content chimed well with my work on Lav Diaz. And it sure does, and yet it’s so very different.
If you’re looking for a nicely photographed film, then The Ditch is not for you. It’s a simple film. The style is pretty rudimentary at times. I’m not saying that Wang Bing has chosen to make the film look amateurish on purpose. Nor am I saying that he cannot do any better. For some reason, regardless of the director’s reason and background, the style fits well to the content. Set in 1960, The Ditch tells the story of inmates of Jiabiangou, a “prisoner correction camp”, or simply a labour camp, in the Gobi Desert. The film was shot without official permission on the actual location. So that gives you an idea of how far Wang Bing is willing to go in order to tell repressed histories of his country. It also explains the rudimentary aesthetics.
Wang Bing is best known for his documentaries, and if you didn’t know that The Ditch is supposed to be a feature film, you could be fooled. I found the aesthetics very documentary like. I had the feeling that Wang Bing was present at something that was, in reality, unfolding in front of him. It may have been the handheld camera. It also felt as though the characters didn’t mind the camera. They just “lived” their roles, so I felt torn between what The Ditch really was; documentary or fiction. I knew that it couldn’t be a straightforward documentary, and yet the aesthetics reminded me of it.
The film is a strong image of suffering and slow death, exactly what you find in Diaz’s films. But it’s portrayed more head-on, down-to-earth without any intention to create something special. This would have turned the suffering into spectacle. By remaining at a distance, Wang Bing counters this risk.
I do feel as though The Ditch should have been longer and I’m not saying this because I like long films. In order to get to the bottom of such a subject and the psychology of the characters you need to spend more than 90 minutes with them. I’m aware of the restrictions the secret production brought with it. Nevertheless, an hour more would have been sufficient to add more power to the film.
The prisoners suffer from cold and hunger. One inmate is seen eating the vomit of another. Another is killing and cooking a rat, for which he is later punished. We also learn in conversations between characters that inmates cut flesh off dead inmates out of sheer desperation over their hunger. The characters’ psychology isn’t as visible as it is in Diaz’s films, which use their duration in order to demonstrate the power of the concentrationary system, i.e. terror, degradation, reducing the inmates to bare life, aiming for psychological disintegration.
And because all of this needs time (the main component of the concentrationary), the film is too short for its in-depth portrayal of the subject. It’s good but too short. Some shots are beautiful and give you a sense of the vastness of the Gobi Desert. There’s no escape possible for the inmates. There’s nothing but emptiness surrounding them. There’s no hope. Even if you tried to escape, it’ll likely mean death. Nevertheless, I would like to see The Ditch as part of a bigger project, a project that positions time/duration more in the centre because it is essential for this subject.
I believe that The Ditch needs a second viewing. I became extremely irritated by the arrival of a female character, who shattered my sensation of seeing something unfolding in real time. She’s the wife of an inmate who had died 8 days earlier and I don’t understand Wang Bing’s decision to include her. His film was extremely focused, to the point, and powerful. The woman was terribly artificial in her acting. She was over the top and got on my nerves. I found her unrealistic. Coming from the city, carrying a handbag – that’s fine. But carrying the handbag around in the desert while looking in despair for her husband? Taking shovel and handbag? And while the men are all wrapped up and freeze, she can stay a night without blankets and is perfectly fine.
It all felt like stupid mistakes as seen in Hollywood films; completely over the top, nonsensical things. With her arrival, I became impatient with the film, which until then had been great. The female character was not necessary and took away screen time for the actual portrayal of suffering. This may be the reason why I thought that the film was too short.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to more Wang Bing films. I was my first, and certainly not my last!