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TSPDT 2013: Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

Posted by martinteller on May 6, 2013

In China’s northeast region of Shingyang, the Tie Xi district was once a prosperous industrial area.  Due to various factors — privatization, loss of Soviet contracts, corruption and mismanagement — by the turn of the millennium it was dying.  Young aspiring filmmaker Wang Bing lived in the area at the time and would wander around with his digital camera, getting to know the workers and residents.  From 1999 to 2001 he collected hundreds of hours of footage, which he edited down to a nine hour documentary, presented in three sections.

In the first part, “Rust”, we visit three factories.  Each is a mere shadow of its former self.  Their profits have plummeted.  The buildings are run-down, decrepit, full of grungy rooms, locked rooms, empty rooms.  They once employed thousands and thousands of workers, now they run with skeleton crews of a few dozen.  The workers have little faith in their futures.  Their wage rate has been cut.  Some doubt they will get paid, some aren’t getting paid, some haven’t been paid in a year.  They worry about their pensions.  They care less and less about their work, when there’s work to be had.  The factories have to hire out temporary workers to perform annual maintenance because they no longer own the proper equipment.  When this happens, the regular workers can’t do anything but sit around and play chess.  Two of the factories go bankrupt.  The third, unable to pay their heating bills, shuts down for the entire winter.  When the employees return, they discover a burst water main has flooded the building, leading to the surreal sight of office workers chipping away at the thick layer of ice on the floor.  Eventually, the third factory goes bankrupt, too.

They also work in dangerous conditions.  The factories are far below safety standards, and lead poisoning is rampant.  Everyone who works with lead has to spend a month in the hospital getting treatment.  A month where they can’t work or, if they’ve been laid off, look for work.  And most of the workers are undereducated, limiting their prospects even further.  The irony is thick when one of a group of workers celebrating the new year sings a Chinese patriotic song on the karaoke machine about the coming of “a grand new age”.

The second part, “Remnants”, looks at the “Rainbow Row” residential area.  Most of the people living here are factory workers… or laid-off factory workers.  It opens with a festival, and as a lottery winner claims his new TV, he tells the emcee that he’s been “between jobs” for 10 years.  The neighborhood is made up of crumbling hovels.  Piles of trash line the narrow streets.  People rummage for scrap metal and soda cans for a few extra pennies.  We follow several teenagers.  They have nothing to do, they spend most of their time hanging out at the local grocery store, playing mah jonng, trying to woo girls.  Their futures aren’t looking so bright.  One thinks about driving a cab, but between the rent of the vehicle and the high price of gas, there’s no profit in it.  Some become small-time hoods.

Things go from grim to worse as the government informs them that the neighborhood is going to be demolished and they have to relocate.  Their compensation is determined using methods that many consider unfair.  They’re assigned to flats that are even smaller than their tiny shacks.  Some refuse to leave until they get something proper.  Their electricity and water is cut off.  They start cannibalizing the buildings for firewood and coal.  Friendship dissolve as people move away.  The grocery store owner is given a raw deal.  A community disintegrates, leaving only a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland of rubble.

In “Rails”, the focus is on the people who operate the trains that connect all the factories to each other and the outside world.  They run raw materials into the factories and finished products out.  With the productivity reduced to almost nothing, only a small handful of people are needed to do the job.  Like the factory workers, they spend much of their time idle, hanging out in the depot playing cards and shooting the breeze.  In this segment, we also meet Du Xiyun, affectionately known as “Old Du” and “One-Eyed Du”.  Old Du used to be a security guard for the railway, but he’s been homeless and unemployed for many years.  His young wife ran out on him and their two sons.  One son now works at a restaurant.  The other, Yang, is a teenager who lives with Old Du.  They squat in a structure on the freight yards, a home probably about the size of my living room.

Like many of the workers in “Rust”, Old Du is part of the “sent down” generation… people whose education was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution when they were sent down to the countryside.  Since losing his security job, he hasn’t worked in years.  He and Yang scrape out an existence through scavenging.  They steal a few bags of coal off the trains every now and then to sell for a pittance.  The train employees look the other way, all of them close friends of the Du family and very fond of them.  But one day Old Du gets arrested.  Rumor is that one of the bosses turned him in.  Yang grows despondent, crying over old family photos.  When Old Du is released a week later, Yang has an emotional breakdown.  One year later, however, things are looking up for the Dus.  Both have jobs working security near the airport.  They have a (slightly) bigger house, a TV, a phone.  They celebrate the New Year with friends.  But as we’ve learned in the previous hours, things can take an abrupt change for the worse, and their future is uncertain.

So… the question that probably comes to mind for most people considering this film is, is it worth nine hours?  I haven’t found any writings that complain about the length.  I don’t want to draw any unwarranted conclusions, but there seems to be a certain fear (or let’s say reluctance) in the critical community to denigrate any extremely long film.  I could speculate about why this might be so, but perhaps it’s best not to go there.  But the critics out there seem to unanimously agree that the length is necessary for immersion in this world, for providing both specific cultural detail and universality.  For viewers who only care about the A-B-C’s of a “plot”, most of the movie will seem like useless padding.  My feeling is that if that’s how you watch documentaries, you might as well just read a Wikipedia article about the topic.

I have mixed feelings about the length of the film.  In the end I felt like most of it was worth the time invested.  This is not a film that tries to score any political points, there isn’t an agenda to get across.  It’s just about getting to know this dying region and its remaining inhabitants.  For that purpose, most of the footage is worthwhile, enlightening and interesting.  But I could see some more cutting being done.  “Rust” in particular feels a bit too loose (it’s the longest of the three, at 4 hours).  For example, the sequence about the annual maintenance takes roughly a half hour.  While there is valuable information in this sequence, stuff that contributes to one’s understanding of the situation, how much do we really need to see the temporary workers doing their job?  There’s already plenty of footage of the factory employees at work.  Speaking as someone who has never edited a movie in his life (and can’t speak for Wang’s intentions) I could imagine this sequence being reduced to 10 minutes and not losing much of anything.

However, I don’t want to nickel and dime the running time.  Maybe it could be 8 hours, or 7.  But for the bulk of the film, I was really engaged.  Wang’s approach is very direct, the handheld camera making you feel like you’re standing right there with these people, in these decrepit, ghostly locations.  It’s a film that takes a lot of time, but it uses that time to say a lot about this area, and about humanity in general.   Rating: Very Good (87)

IMDb
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