An unrelenting documentary from great Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing
Is observational documentary making a comeback? For a while at least it seemed as though great docs like Man on Wire, Project Nim and Senna were pushing documentary ever further into storytelling and suspense. But at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival docs including Consequence, Leviathan and the marvellous Three Sisters seem determined to hold on to the specifics, to the detriment of strong narrative shaping. Wang Bing's latest film is resolute in detailing an appallingly quotidian family. He explores the lives of the three young sisters of the title, and focuses more specifically on the eldest child, Yingying, who labours in the mountainous region of southwest China after the father takes the two younger siblings with him to the city, their mother long since having left.
Wang Bing's film is simultaneously tough to watch, unrelenting in its gaze, and stunning in its image-making. Much of the film is shot with mist swirling around the village, and the director has the gift of making interior scenes go beyond the realism of the location to achieve the magic of the well-framed. The play of light and shade indicates a painter in film images, while at the same time (and this is the difficult bit) never once suggesting that the images are there to serve the director's aesthetic needs to the detriment of an investigation into rural living. When at one moment the film shows the father’s return with the other two daughters, after failing to make a living in the city, we can sense that however hard life is in the small village, there are no less harsh lives in other part of the country too. The image of his return might be framed aesthetically, but the wider frame the director searches out is very ethical indeed.
Three Sisters showed at Edinburgh International Film Festival.