Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: China is a huge country. With such a diversity of places, ecosystems, industries, and people, China seems to render irrelevant any attempt to depict it in miniature. Director Wang Xiaoshuai takes an unconventional approach to this problem in his stunning documentary Chinese Portrait, suggesting that the best way to offset information overload is to slow down and let images speak.
Trying to describe Chinese Portrait is simultaneously too easy and too difficult. Over the film’s 80 minutes, we see a variety of long-take scenes of everyday life. There is no narration and no obvious progression between images. Wang Xiaoshuai’s camera catches every imaginable environment, from the bustling big city to verdant meadows to run down, post-industrial wasteland. He captures people on trains, in the street, at meals and prayer – living life. Crucially, he captures people from different classes, walks of life, and backgrounds, including an incredible sequence of Chinese Muslims engaging in prayer.
The word “portrait” in the title proves just as important as the word “Chinese.” These are static frame long takes – much like “Now Something Is Slowly Changing” – so the eye roams around the image freely. In many shots, a single figure or small group will stand in the foreground, not moving at all, while in the background life continues apace. In this way the film really does feel like a series of portraits, an unnerving but fascinating effect. Wang Xiaoshuai himself becomes the subject of a number of these portraits throughout the film, standing in front of the various locations he chronicles, making this a participatory documentary of a very strange type. In most participatory docs, the filmmaker interacts with the audience, leading them along and bantering with them. Here the director has an almost ghostly presence, silent but unmissable.
The film has another level, too, one that in my mind moves it from very good to great. Chinese Portrait, shot over the course of ten years, utilizes both print film and digital, and plays up the differences between the two media, using a more widescreen aspect ratio for the digital sections (meaning that the image occupies more of the horizontal space of the screen). This means that, even if you are not used to spotting the qualitative differences between the two, your brain should register a dissonance as the film jumps back and forth. To accentuate this, the print film shots often end with a few seconds of blank sepia film, accompanied by a crackle as the sound cuts out, creating ellipses in the film, temporary breathing points that underscore the material nature of print film. Without saying a word, Wang Xiaoshuai documents the uncertain transition from print to digital, not drawing explicit conclusions but letting the images tell their own tale of the advantages and disadvantages of each. As film pushes into the future, so does China – but at what cost? The film remains silent on this question, but it lingers through each exquisite frame.