“Stories Drawn in Rust”

12/19/2010

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust'

Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks Trilogy

By freight train, moving slowly through a snow-blanketed city, and surrounded on either side by the low and jagged rooftops of slums, we arrive in the district of sheet metal factories. And here we will remain,  amidst all this epic ugliness, within this seemingly incalculable expanse of industrial misery, for the  duration of Wang Bing’s exhilarating three films that together comprise West of the Tracks. Made with only a hand-held digital camera, the films stand as a monolithic statement on consumption and impermanence. They chronicle many facets of the industrial sector of the Northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, from the professional struggles of workers in its declining factories to the lives of the many unemployed denizens of its surrounding districts who struggle to survive. The overwhelming sense of loss in these films, pounded into the sensory realm by the echoes of empty foundries and the buzz of neon lights, is actually the story of China’s economic rise to the top, but told from underneath it all, in the shadow of wealth being amassed elsewhere and steered by the cold dictates of ever-evolving commerce. The incredible length of time over which the films develop imbues them with a formidable size and weight reminiscent of the powerful machinery that provides their ambiance. While Wang documents a variety of different places and people centered around Shenyang, over a period that lasts through the years 1999 and 2001, he follows them with dogged, deliberate concentration, the scenes of daily life advancing with the lumbering but inexorable pace of the very freight trains that symbolically connect them all.

As with other ‘sixth generation’ filmmakers in China, many of Wang’s choices in terms of subject matter, technique, and overall philosophy are born of a highly developed mistrust for the standard avenues for dissemination of information and mythology that are imposed upon him and his fellow citizens by the government. This disillusionment has resulted in many radically divergent programs for dealing with the darker side of the incredible upswing in China’s status on the world stage, quite unafraid to describe a lot of the new problems created by such ballooning affluence. There’s something depressingly distopian about West of the Tracks, only without the fantasy; Wang doesn’t need to imagine anything in order to conjure such images, only astutely and unflinchingly observe them happening.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust'

West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust (2003)

This is ethnography of a sort, but of a type whose subject is neither immediately defined nor ever fixed to one particular group or setting. The films are constantly searching, through varying distances and stretches of time, for the human faces attached to the broader topics that they are trying to scrutinize, the lives impacted by the filtering downward of unimaginably circuitous social and environmental evolutions capable of both spitting a horizon of human settlements across the landscape, and even more quickly swallowing it back up. Director Wang favors looking to the final results of these changes as an absolute and inimitable crystallizing of their implications, certainly compared to tracing their root causes or positing solutions, his focus narrowed and tailored to a small part of one particular city. He never lets the people and their stories stray far from his line of vision, since besides their voices there is only the sonorous emptiness of the factories and the laborious, increasingly lonesome shriek of the rails.

While we get to know a great many people throughout the three films, not one feels as though they’ve been sold short by brevity, each given enough time and opportunity for his or her humanity to materialize before Wang’s camera, the relation that his or her life bares to the grander designs (or chaos) given visibility, even mass. The people’s naturalness is a product of how entrenched the filmmaker was in their daily lives; one gets the sense that his camera was on all the time, eroding all self-consciousness by simply waiting. As one can imagine, far too much occurs over the three films’ aggregate nine hours to describe with much inclusiveness. For a satisfactory appraisal of its overall effect it is necessary to condense most of it, skimming the favored and telling details, from which there are many to choose, that rise to the surface of memory. The first entry in the series, entitled Rust, looks at Shenyang’s factories, chronicling the everyday routines of the workers, providing a portrait of labor that is comprised of work and play and reflection, everything encompassed by the shadow of faceless and depersonalizing mega-industry.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust'

West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust (2003)

Wang spends a great deal of time filming in the workers’ break room, where they gamble on mahjong, lend money, hold discussions,  and generally spend the majority of their waking hours when not smelting, shaping, and cooling copper plates. They talk to the filmmaker with an openness not often seen in documentaries, while sometimes entering their combination locker room and mess hall still naked from a shower, and appearing completely unfazed by his camera and his questions, as though he were just a fellow worker. Indeed, it is in these sorts of relaxed situations that Wang prefers to interview people, as it can be the most conducive to the observation of human emotions, with jocularity occasionally giving way to fighting, and the men holding court on subjects that they might otherwise be afraid of being overheard and reprimanded. We also hear the factory foremen giving long and involved lectures to their coworkers. On site accidents, it would seem, are another routine occurrence encountered while working in the factories. A few happen during the time Wang spent in Shenyang making the film, thankfully with none resulting in any human casualties. One factory, while shut for the holiday, suffered burst pipes, the flooding water quickly turning to thick walls and carpets of ice in the winter cold. So we watch as the returning factory managers must dig through and remove the ice just to use their offices again.

Punctuating the sometimes coarse and plainspoken human mini-dramas that characterize time spent in the mess hall are long, almost structural takes of the factories, both inside and out. Sometimes these show people within, working in monotonous motion, and at other times they show the place empty of life. Wang seems drawn to the dizzying, disorienting proportions of the space, vast machinery rising into gray oblivion. This provides a most stunning contrast with the small, dark and decrepit places the workers generally inhabit. While the intimacy of his approach really comes through in the atmospheres that the films capture, their true visual revelation is that such low-rent aesthetics can also communicate the hugeness of a space, even give the viewer a surrounded feeling, like being in a certain environment. The light in the factories will sometimes be tinted an extreme shade of blue or red, sometimes as copper-hued as the products they make. Men wear face masks so as not to inhale metal particles breathed out from the mighty furnaces, and we feel as though we too should be wearing them just viewing this.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust'

West of the Tracks, Part 1: Rust (2003)

The picture gradually comes into view that these are men whose safety net is deteriorating at a faster rate than the factories themselves. The benefits and potential for retirement that had previously been a given are, little by little, being pulled out from under them. A worker who comes to one of the managers to request the back wages owed to him complains bitterly about how the government doesn’t care if he gets sick, and won’t lend him any support in that event. And then the factories start to close down, no longer keeping pace with China’s rapid economic growth. Knowledge of these new developments settle over the men in a grim finality. Most shrug it off with a weary fatalism; everything for which they have worked for decades is falling away, but there is no one entity on which to lay the blame, no recourse for reclaiming their rights as workers. They talk about stealing tools before vacating the factory, but none of them seems up to the task. There are apparently no job relocation services available to them, even within a centralized system. They are simply asked to leave. Wang takes an uninterrupted walk through the enormous, ruddy belly of the copper plating factory, down through its dim, underground passages, and stops to listen to the deafening machine hum for one last time before the place closes down.

As immediate and deranging as the effects of change can be, seemingly gaining a terrible momentum as they go from the top to the very bottom, Wang examines, at the same time as all the slow tumult consuming Shenyang, the impact of tradition as well, how it can be comparably calamitous, but over a longer time period, generations. While time is all changes, these do leave a residue that can build to a veritable impasto – tradition hides from change where it can, both within us and outside of us, in our very environment. China is, in spite of political measures to induce a sociocultural lockstep (many of which could justifiably be described as incomplete, patterned on double standards, drops in an ocean), like nearly everywhere else in never facing one direction or moving at a single tempo, being instead a hive of myriad trajectories moving at different rates.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 2: Remnants'

West of the Tracks, Part 2: Remnants (2003)

The film that follows, called Remnants, looks at life in the sprawling shanty towns springing forth from the industrial sectors, the durability of lifestyle and the necessarily cohesive social structures that emerge from the many domestic scenes within its makeshift walls. Wang begins by looking at a group of adolescents in one economically depressed settlement, all of whom are on the brink of adulthood but feel the gravity of the limitations stretching before them, with few options besides the factory work which, as we have seen in Rust, is fast disappearing. They gather in claustrophobic rooms at night, their loves and losses taking shape in raucous exchanges. Since life, above anything else, is the focus of the film, nothing is too insignificant for the director to include. This is because anything there can reflect, however imperceptibly, the truth about life in the shanty towns. Gradually, Wang opens his purview to a greater and more involving drama that is unfolding: the people of the town have only a few months to vacate their dwellings, by order of the central government. Not only do they have to leave but they also have to dismantle their houses themselves, reducing them to rubble. The people are not being swept aside but being erased, not even a memory permitted to remain.

Men stand in dim convenience stores discussing possible ways to make money. Enterprising individuals, such as an old man pushing a cart full of scrap metal, sell what they can off of the refuse of the surrounding industrial regions. Even with the dissolution of their entire neighborhood looming, people carry on in much the same way as they had before. Families eat together and bark at one another; people gradually clear out their houses of possessions until they are merely shells, and then move on to taking out foundations. It is a long process, since there are so many people, all with varying reluctance to leave. The pacing of the film really reflects the many months that Wang spent in these towns surrounding Shenyang, as he shies away from overtly abbreviating things to generate a sense of urgency to what is going on. His editing captures the cadence of life, which has its intense moments, but more often seems like a collection of distractions. Things are not boiled down to an essential issue, but are shown in teeming and eclectic spans of time, sometimes oppressive or convoluted with voices. There is a great deal of brutality, both verbal and physical, to people’s interactions, and it is hard to tell if it is always like that or if this is mainly a symptom of the forced evacuation hanging over them (which certainly can’t be helping matters at all). Their joy appears with a sheen of despondency, always coming before they hear more of the bad news.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 2: Remnants'

West of the Tracks, Part 2: Remnants (2003)

Rust situates itself firmly in the workplace while the second film, Remnants, is mainly about home life. The third, Rails, is predicated on a synthesis of the two, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the two places. The people’s lives are based, to a large extent, on what resources the work defines for them, from habitat to personality, livelihood in the most encompassing sense. This is true even if the work isn’t theirs – so many people are long-ago laid off and living in indigence. But their neighborhoods are set up around the factories, the factories fed by the rails. Even after they have been sent packing from a folded factory, the workers in Rust all go for their routine, mandatory hospital stay to get tested for lead poisoning. The metal, presented to them over the arterial rails, is also coursing through their veins.

The tracks themselves are an integral feature of both the structure that the films take on, and also how they map and define their notion of place. After sidestepping the tracks – the direction of “west” seems incidental, a technicality – to explore its spheres of influence, Wang finishes by showing the lives to whose very heart the tracks penetrate. Everyone seen throughout the trilogy is somehow reliant on the railway line, as a link to an overriding network, as a bringer of raw material. The dispassionate freight behemoths lumber on regardless of what is being constructed or demolished around them. They are a symbol of continuity, a curious singularity among the human ephemerality, somehow static while being ever-moving. We are introduced to Old Du, who works the rails by illicitly gathering coal brought in on the trains. While away on one extended mission, news comes back to his home that he has been caught and arrested. He finally gets released a week later and his son, Young Du, who has up until that point retained a stoic strength, breaks down in a restaurant in front of his father, weeping uncontrollably. It is the most wrenching point in the film, a stinging reminder of how important familial ties can be when life is a day to day struggle with little social support and a cavernous economic abyss just below one’s meager precipice.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 3: Rails'

West of the Tracks, Part 3: Rails (2003)

Alternating between people who work on the trains and those who scavenge from them, we sense a complex and delicate ecosystem arising from the intersection between industry and civilization. When the last of the three films has finished, the lingering feeling is not one of hopelessness exactly, but of inescapable acquiescence with something almost too large to contemplate. Given the power of the forces that shape the landscape and turn “migrate” into a transitive verb – the omnipotence of the state made even more monstrous by demands and fueling coming from the world economy – the decline of its product is concurrently messy and far-reaching.

Thus the amount of loss seems proportionate to – or at times greater than – the growth that is occurring elsewhere in the country, in the big cities and in the South. Shenyang’s factories, once integral to the running of the communist machine, have become relics in the face of expanding capitalism. Many of them were originally installed by the Japanese empire before the war, and were later repurposed by Mao’s government. The workforce swelled during the cultural revolution, with urban and wealthy people forcibly being brought there to become the new, united proletariat. Now the factories are reminders of both a colonial past and a military-industrial complex that was purposefully diversified as well as geographically spread out in order to distribute labor throughout the nation. With a free(r) market, the cities’ insatiable appetite for construction notwithstanding, labor is paradoxically getting consolidated while at the same time expanding in purpose and multiformity, with Shenyang becoming more of an outpost than a necessary appendage to the coastal heartland.

With his unadorned, unpolished look at the human story behind industrial grandeur and decay, Wang is prefiguring a new and more extensively conscious type of national identity. From collected moments in the lives of a great many disenfranchised people, from the laborers to the laid-off, he fashions an epic struggle that continues without resolution, seemingly fundamental to the continuing saga of China’s evolution throughout the 20th Century and beyond. While his camera captures so many of the lively and intricate travails of his subjects, and the films could constitute a sort of ‘city symphony’ for modern China (and manage to be one of the most gruelingly truthful of its kind), the overall effect is rarefied and sepulchral, a record of a ghost town in the making. The motif is decay, the dominant movement departure. This is the inverse of an onwards-and-upwards mentality, a sensibility that refuses to ignore the drawbacks, the plunder that is necessary for wealth. Writ large in West of the Tracks we see both conservation of matter, and the equal and opposite reactions of Newton’s third law of motion. And in China motion is inevitable, unstoppable but, one would hope not unalterable. With a greater awareness of all sides of the story, even those that get bulldozed when they no longer seem useful, people can develop a stronger idea of how to change things. Wang’s documentaries offer the possibility of gleaning power from the remnants.

Still from 'West of the Tracks, Part 3: Rails'

West of the Tracks, Part 3: Rails (2003)

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