It’s a rare privilege to launch a festival with UK film premières, particularly when they may never be seen in the region again. Acclaimed Chinese documentarian Wang Bing has five works available at AV Festival 14: Extraction, all of them a mixture of national and local premières. West of the Tracks, filmed between 1999 and 2001, is a rather epic yet utterly engrossing introduction into Wang’s filmmaking.
Split into three durational instalments – Rust, Remnants and Rails which total over 9 hours of viewing – Wang profiles the generational dying embers of heavy industry that have left many Chinese labourers destitute. In Rust, he shadows factory workers in the Tiexi district of Shenyang: once the industrial beating heart of north-east China, which houses vast plots of smelting plants and sheet metal factories. Wang steps out into the surrounding shantytowns (nicknamed “Rainbow Row”) in Remnants, magnifying the conditions of life and particularly the children who are born into poverty. Finally, he looks more closely and personally at a scavenging father and son in Rails whose excruciating loneliness and struggle find a form of unlikely stability.
All three pieces only lock into place when viewed as a whole, as if stepping back on a mosaic. Watching them is a lot like getting comfortable inside a slowly closing vice: factories filing for bankruptcy in Rust, families evicted from their homes in Remnants and parents arrested in Rails. If there are politics to be found in Wang’s epic, they are of a people so detached from economic empowerment as to be disconnected from the discussion itself. Wang has picked up a rock and looked underneath – with a telescope. Of course, the tragic legacy is that the rock used to be diamond: massive profit potential, skilled labour and global contribution all to be found within.
And yet, the apparent lack of authorial presence in West of the Tracks – and indeed many of Wang’s films – is curious. He’s the silent voyeur whose gaze mirrors our own, shooting from first-person with a handheld digital camera for maximum intimacy. There appears to be little editorialising; Wang either allows individuals to speak freely about their lives, or simply captures their arguments from across the room. He then edits together long panning shots of derelict structures, constantly framing his footage in motion – travelling by train or simply wandering aimlessly through vacant buildings. As he records, we are accompanied only by the sonic soul of industry: wailing train horns, screeching tracks, echoes of clattering metal and roaring furnaces. Each of them haunting yet, over time, eerily soothing.
This hints at a greater exploration of paradox, as a theme, that Wang teases out. As the eastern tech business grows, and mismanagement takes hold of traditional engineering, the debate is shoehorned into the pursuit of “progression”. In West of the Tracks, we see the people who weren’t brought along for the ride. Thus, the concept of labour is thwarted, puzzlingly in an area of China which has more labour than anywhere else. It’s as if the Tiexi district of Shenyang itself has become so economically frozen, it has immobilised all who dwell within it. And really, this permanent sense of idleness is what remains with viewers at the closing stages of Wang’s marathon film.