Pack a sleeping bag before entering Wang Bing’s patient, immersive study of the lives of refugees seeking safety on the border between Myanmar and China. The film runs almost 150 minutes but feels longer, in a good way — it’s more a sleepover than a narrative, a long day and night spent sitting at a camp, then journeying by foot, then watching laborers hack sugar cane, then laughing with family and friends around a fire, then marching on in the daylight, up a muddy mountain path, as explosions boom in a restless sky. Much of the film is given to real-time observation, the everyday reality of a tragedy captured in long, unbroken shots, some casually framed and illuminated by candles or campfires.
Wang’s subjects are Ta’ang, an ethnic Chinese minority; the opening shots, the film’s most dramatic, show a Chinese soldier at a refugee camp, kicking a tribeswoman. So the Ta’ang travel. We learn — from seeing their toil, from hearing their calls on cellphones — of the endless practicalities of a life uprooted. Kids wash dishes in a stream; parents make complex and tenuous arrangements to meet up with family members they’re separated from. One mother, in a tense telephone conversation, eyes Wang’s camera and announces that she needs to step away for privacy; otherwise, the filmmaker seems to operate un-noted, simply showing us what we would see if we were Ta’ang, too. My heart lifted, in the final half-hour, as the Ta’ang trudge and the horizon booms with warfare. The word is that they’re near shelter at last. That turns out to be the kind of roofed picnic area Americans might enjoy in a state park. Wang eschews commentary until his final shot, which emphasizes, from a distance, the fragility of this safe space.
Directed by Wang Bing
Opens May 5, Anthology Film Archives