Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Award-winning film director Wang Xiaoshuai returns to his home country, capturing an eclectic portrait of modern China.

Orginal title: 我的镜头)
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Country: China, 2018, 1h 19m

Workers in blue overalls stand on each side of the mineshaft tracks, the torches on their helmets pointing towards the spectator looking back at them. Everything is motionless until the wire between the tracks starts moving, creating a deep, rustling, monotonous, endless, and strangely soothing sound.

This is the opening scene of Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest film, Chinese Portrait, screened as a documentary for the first time in Busan at the International Film Festival. The film has no storyline and no dialogue. It has earlier been screened as art installation, where the portraits are presented on four walls with the spectator standing in the middle, but has now come out as an 80 minutes cut on a cinema screen in an odd, yet captivating form of documentary.

«Chinese Portrait captures moments in the lives and landscapes of a rapidly changing country.»

With Wang’s camera as the paintbrush, the audience encounters people, material structures, and landscapes in cities and rural provinces of China. A family of five share a meal in a narrow courtyard; two men chatting, a kid playing around, while a woman and an old lady stare straight into the camera, as people do in many of the portraits.

China in transition

In another scene, a man sits on a concrete rock – neatly, with his back straight – smiling an accommodating yet uncertain smile as his portrait is captured on camera. His yellow helmet matches the yellow excavator working in the background. In a later scene, the spectator is taken to the area behind the construction site: old one-floor brick houses, connected to the rest of the city by a muddy road, patiently being swept by an elderly lady dressed in orange work clothes.  People, cars, and bicycles move past the frame, which itself remains fixed throughout each scene of the film.

Chinese Portrait Director: Wang Xiaoshuai

One gets the impression that these brick houses, and the lives lived inside them, are soon to be replaced by high-rises, populated by newcomers, and is left to wonder what will then happen to the people portrayed in this scene.  A similar fate may also be in store for the leather cabin shown in another portrait, in front of which two shepherds stand quietly, looking straight at the camera with eyes that have seen what most of the audience never will see, flanked by the striking mountainous landscape. The only thing moving in the portrait is the lamb one of them holds calmly in her arms.

From deserted towns in remote provinces, to big cities, factory production, beaches and mountain valleys, Chinese Portrait dwells on the China that might not be here tomorrow. We are taken into office landscapes, along railroad tracks, to street markets, Friday prayer, and old people’s homes. All are composed as painted portraits, and in almost every scene someone is looking us in the eye, inscrutably.

A beginning without an end

The director himself has said that he does not know what to call the method used for Chinese Portrait but formed the idea when asked to film his friend painting out in the open. After having made films for decades at various locations throughout the country, Wang also felt compelled to preserve some of the landscapes, cityscapes and lives he encountered along the way, to get a deeper sense of what China was – and is – and how it has shaped him, while itself being reshaped at such a rapid pace.

Eye contact is a vulnerable exercise, also for a spectator whom the people in the portraits obviously cannot see. We get a glimpse into lives and minds and memories and anxieties, in the contexts in which they were (possibly) formed, but we know nothing more than what the portrait and its moment of capture reveals. We know nothing about the people and the places, only what is present in that frame, in those minutes.

The project had a beginning, in 2008, but no end, as Wang himself explains. Much of what he and his team filmed for Chinese Portrait did not make it into the final cut. Hopefully, the extra material can be used for an additional film, and the project will continue. Each portrait leaves one wondering about the past, present, and future, and the ways in which places shape the people who inhabit them.