Who is Mrs. Fang? At the beginning of the Locarno Golden Leopard-winning documentary that bears her name, she is a Chinese woman in her sixties waiting in a hallway. We get no context here, nor in the next shot, as she reacts to a bad smell outside and darts off camera, nor in the next, when she’s standing in a dingy room with two beds in it as well as a fridge, while another figure bustles around with a kettle. Then, across a single, brutal cut, we’re with her some months later, and she now occupies one of the beds. Her advanced Alzheimer’s has shriveled the skin onto her bones, and her face is almost unrecognizable, lips drawn back in a constant rictus, teeth exposed like those in a skull.
Over the course of Chinese director Wang Bing’s atypically short but typically unflinching, challenging, provocative film, we will watch her die. This is filmmaking so unblinking, and so without sentiment that sometimes it requires an effort of will not to wince away from the screen, especially any time Wang returns to that closeup of her skeletal face. And he spends a lot of time with this shot, his camera’s dispassionate eye staring into her glazed ones, giving audiences a lot of time to consider not just the image, not just the woman dying behind those eyes, but the meaning of it.
This level of intimacy skirts the boundaries of prurience and consent. Mrs. Fang is for these last days unable to speak, unable even to move under her own volition, so how can we know how she feels about the filmmakers’ presence, if she’s even aware of it? But it also asks exceptionally uncomfortable questions of us, about why we are so unnerved by the naked evidence of this most natural and inevitable of human processes, about why we want to look away, and why we do not.
Respite from the intensity of these sequences comes in the business that goes on around Fang Xiuying’s prone form. Her adult son and daughter, and other assorted neighbors and relatives come…