Jia Zhangke may be the best known contemporary Chinese director, but Wang Bing is without a doubt the best Chinese documentarian. His debut Tie Xi Qu, a nine-hour epic poem shot over 18 months on a small DV camera, is about the final months of three large factories in Shenyang’s Tie Xi Qu (the largest and longest-lasting heavy industry base in Chinese history and a model state-owned enterprise of the socialist planned economy) and a workers’ shanty destined for forced relocation, yet the film talks about much more than the end of an era.
Part 1, ‘Rust’ (240 minutes), forms the backbone. Smelting, rolling and the production of cable make up much of this section, with the second half showing production slowly grinding to a halt. Woven through it are the workers, their insignificance emphasized by the massive machinery. Yet in the lounge, their chatting, showering and bickering elucidate the life of what Wang calls a ‘majority group’ in a specific social period. Their trust in Wang is evident in their ease with the camera that follows them like a shadow. The DV camera’s automatic color correction darkens the greens (lounge) and the reds (factory), which, combined with the smoke and fluids, reinforces the feeling of being in an inferno.
Part 2, ‘Remnants’ (175 minutes), zooms in on the workers’ shanty, where garbage fills the spaces between shabby accommodations. The first half sees laid off workers discussing get-rich dreams and teenagers flirting, dating and breaking up. The second half depicts how for the benefit of attracting investment, the area is removed by force, and the people’s futile fight for compensation.
A father and his son who eke out a living on the tracks are the focus of part 3, ‘Rails’ (130 minutes). Being without household registration and a home, they struggle to survive in the system’s crevices doing small jobs and selling stolen coal. The most heart-wrenching touch of humanity in the sober narrative occurs when after the father’s arrest, the son weeps over old photos of his mother.
Tie Xi Qu starts and ends with the tracks. The three-minute opening shot follows the train as it enters snow-bound Tie Xi Qu. After factory operations have stopped, the train continues to make its way among the ruins of industrial civilization, itself becoming a part of them. By contrast, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) opens with a train journeying into a rousing city. It’s a glorification of industrial civilization, the dawn of an era, while Tie Xi Qu mourns the demise of one.