Wang's monumental documentary is a poetic summation of the death throes of the heavy industries (copper smelting, sheet metal production, cable manufacture) in Shenyang, North-east China. It could have been made in virtually any post-industrial zone anywhere in the world, but the fact that these failed corporations were state enterprises and supposed pillars of the Maoist economy gives it a particular poignancy. Shot in the main between 1999 and 2001, the film is in three parts: Rust (245 min), on the closure of three factories; Remnants (178 min), on the impact of unemployment on ex-workers in condemned housing and their teenage kids; and Rails (133 min), on the vestigial railway system, with a particular focus on the cook/security guard/scavenger Old Du and his clearly screwed-up son Du Yang. The overriding image is one of forward movement - along railway tracks, alleys and corridors, through factories - but the destination is always a dead end. The complicity of film-maker and subjects (no one minds Wang shooting their arguments and brawls or following them into locker rooms and showers) suggests both how Wang integrated himself into these lives over a period of years and how the concept of 'privacy' became a mirage in Mao's China. Overviews and economic analysis are absent, and there's no pretence that this is somehow a microcosm of the country. Instead, a palpable commitment to humanity in extremis and a refusal to romanticise the perverse beauty of this localised hell.
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