The girls first appear clumped together within a dark room. Yingying is 10 years old, Zhenzhen six, Fenfen four. Light comes from a nearby fire, and a competition soon emerges over which girl can best make a fire. The trio divides and reunites as its members wander on and offscreen. Each girl will spend time alone over the course of filmmaker Wang Bing’s new documentary, Three Sisters, and the cycles of separation and reunion will prove essential to their lives.
The girls live in a small mountain village in China’s Yunnan province with their grandfather, Su Xingliang. Their mother has no part in their lives, and their father labors along with other migrant workers in a city far away. We watch the girls over the course of changing seasons in long, work-driven scenes. The girls make the bed, wash each others’ hair, and prepare meals with their grandfather, who teaches them the value of sharing food. As the children lead pigs along roads and gather plants and firewood in fields, they learn to rely on each other outside the home as well.
These group scenes—shot by the film’s director in collaboration with the cameramen Huang Wenhai and Li Peifeng—function as preparation for the solitude that can come with adulthood. The girls glance across the grass one day and see that their father, Sun Shunbao, has come home for a spell. He is alone in the city, and desires company there. But if he takes any of his children with him—circumstances are too hard for him to take them all—whoever’s left behind will be lonelier for it.
The father is introduced, as are all of Three Sisters‘s important supporting characters, with a title card stating his age and his relationship to the girls. Listing a person’s years is one of the ways in which Three Sisters reminds us of time passing, even if we aren’t always aware of exactly how much. Space is another subtly registered, keenly felt force in a film whose people live within clear limits. Like Wang Bing’s other films, including 2003’s epic nonfiction study of a decaying factory district and its discarded workers, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (showing May 18 and 19 as part of MOMA’s excellent survey of recent Chinese documentaries), Three Sisters largely unfolds through handheld medium shots of full-bodied people in contained environments: the interiors of small homes, alleyways between houses, even the narrowly lined roads connecting one mountain to another. It’s as though the film’s people (including the cameramen) are free to move about, but only within a predefined place.
The girls have been growing up aware of limits well before their father’s return. They mention death within the film’s first few minutes, and already know that much of their time until then (whether in the village or elsewhere) will be spent on daily work. But work itself is not a bad thing, and can even give cause for pleasure. Fire, for instance, appears throughout the film specifically as something that people have built as an occasion for company, clumped together beyond the dark.