“Mrs. Fang” – 2018 Shanghai International Film Festival Review

The Chinese documentarian Wang Bing is long noted for his commitment to slow cinema—“Dead Souls,” his latest, ran eight hours long at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—and his unrelenting gaze on the ills of contemporary Chinese societies. Proving that he is capable of brevity, though perhaps not gentleness, Wang’s Golden Leopard winning “Mrs. Fang” (方绣英) is a snapshot of excruciating clarity on the mundanity of suffering that takes on the last 10 days in the life of an Alzheimer’s patient.

The first we see of Fang Xiu Ying, the titular missus of the film, is a picture of an ordinary woman: sprightly, alert, her shoulders slumping into meaty, aged slopes. At the time of filming in late 2015, the Fujian native, who laboured as a farmer since her youth, a little quiet, but otherwise remained cognisant. Cue a time jump to a little over a year later, and she is not quite so well. Bedridden and unresponsive to stimuli, we watch her still frame bracketed by the comings-and-goings of her family members, each holding their own little vigil for her as she slowly fades from life.

Maintaining long close-ups on her sunken visage, Wang dares us to consider both Fang’s and our own states of mind as we take in the full extent of her degeneration: lips pulled back in a taut grimace; eyes pointedly open with occasional bouts of moisture that portend either mere biological function or her internal torment; and an almost complete immobilisation short of her neck, which turns slowly with a creaky precariousness. Around her, family members stream in and out, wondering just how much of the matriarch remains.  Among these musings, the sundry concerns for the daily lives of each other pepper conversations, ensconcing the dying woman in the warm environs of care at its most basal level.

This juxtaposition of life and death goes on to populate most of the sparse documentary. While the men go fishing for food—the area is staunchly proletariat and resolutely poor—the women linger around Fang’s makeshift ward in a converted lounge, keeping her hydrated with a liquid-filled syringe as they chat around her, about her: everyone has an opinion on how she might be feeling, everyone keeps a close eye on her every move, attuned to any changes amidst an otherwise constant stillness. In a way, Fang’s bedside allows for a forum of familial woes, such as the details of her eventual funeral. These play out alongside matters of daily living with a casualness underpinned with the realization that things no longer need to be bound by a tight adherence to decorum.

The greatest triumph of “Mrs. Fang” is perhaps how little it takes to say so much about the complex rituals of death as a communal experience. By avoiding the ease with which death could be aestheticised, and choosing to showcase both the process of dying and the ways with which the living engage it without the excess baggage that accompany the rich, Wang pares the business of expiration right down to its bones without any sentimentality. There is no grace and barely dignity.  This is death.