Who is Mrs. Fang? At the beginning of the Locarno Golden Leopard-winning documentary that bears her name, she is a Chinese woman in her sixties waiting in a hallway. We get no context here, nor in the next shot, as she reacts to a bad smell outside and darts off camera, nor in the next, when she’s standing in a dingy room with two beds in it as well as a fridge, while another figure bustles around with a kettle. Then, across a single, brutal cut, we’re with her some months later, and she now occupies one of the beds. Her advanced Alzheimer’s has shriveled the skin onto her bones, and her face is almost unrecognizable, lips drawn back in a constant rictus, teeth exposed like those in a skull.
Over the course of Chinese director Wang Bing’s atypically short but typically unflinching, challenging, provocative film, we will watch her die. This is filmmaking so unblinking, and so without sentiment that sometimes it requires an effort of will not to wince away from the screen, especially any time Wang returns to that closeup of her skeletal face. And he spends a lot of time with this shot, his camera’s dispassionate eye staring into her glazed ones, giving audiences a lot of time to consider not just the image, not just the woman dying behind those eyes, but the meaning of it.
This level of intimacy skirts the boundaries of prurience and consent. Mrs. Fang is for these last days unable to speak, unable even to move under her own volition, so how can we know how she feels about the filmmakers’ presence, if she’s even aware of it? But it also asks exceptionally uncomfortable questions of us, about why we are so unnerved by the naked evidence of this most natural and inevitable of human processes, about why we want to look away, and why we do not.
Respite from the intensity of these sequences comes in the business that goes on around Fang Xiuying’s prone form. Her adult son and daughter, and other assorted neighbors and relatives come in and out of the room, their plastic sandals scuffling on the cheap linoleum, and discuss her deterioration, her bedsores and breathing, in prosaic terms. There’s the man whose only contribution seems to be noting that she looks very much worse than the last time, the woman who frets about when to dress her in funeral clothes and the gray-haired older lady who stands silent as a sentinel at the foot of her bed. Out the back, the menfolk pull their T-shirts up over their sweating bellies and argue. Nobody ever says “hospital” and it is not until late in the film that the word “doctor” is mentioned, and then it’s a suggestion rapidly shot down.
In addition to being a portrait of death, “Mrs. Fang” is, like all of Wang’s films, concerned with economically challenged, marginalized Chinese life. This ramshackle and impoverished village in the country’s rural south is not a place of bucolic serenity, but scrappy make-do-and-mend. Even the night fishing that supports Mrs. Fang’s family, and which Wang covers in long, tolerance-testing, ultimately hypnotic unbroken takes, has no hint of romance to it. With pylons silhouetted in the background, the men push their little boat along the banks of the sluggish river, to the sporadic, unpleasant buzzing emitted by the sensors on their handheld fishing nets when they detect a catch.
The wilful anti-poetry of the unscored images; the slap of that cut back to Mrs. Fang’s face, which never loses the power to shock; the observation of the crowd that gathers round her bed and stares awhile before dispersing and waiting elsewhere for her to die. This is a merciless film, and whether the process of teasing its meaning out for yourself feels like a punishment or a reward will depend entirely on your patience and your point of view.
So who was Mrs. Fang? It is a maudlin question in which Wang, for all his careful study of her face and form throughout those final days, has little interest. We never learn what she did, who she loved, what made her laugh. Instead, as death settles on her like dusk — so incrementally that her deterioration seems to have no stages, just relentless, seamless decline — Mrs. Fang becomes an abstraction within her own wasted body. The film was never the story of a life, and by its close, it’s not even the story of a death but Death itself: painful, pitiless and unbearably banal.