Acclaimed Director Wang Bing to Screen and Discuss “Three Sisters” at Wellesley

A photo of Wang Bing
Photo provided by Jean-Pierre Cousin
November 15, 2018

Internationally acclaimed Chinese director Wang Bing will present and answer questions about his film Three Sisters (2012) at Wellesley on November 15 as part of his first major career retrospective in the United States. The screening will begin at 7 pm in Collins Cinema, with the Q&A to follow.

Set in a remote mountain village, Three Sisters chronicles the lives of three young girls, ages 10, 6, and 4, who have been abandoned by their mother and left largely to their own devices by their father, a migrant worker who must travel vast distances in search of work. The film won best film at the Venice International Film Festival, best documentary at the Dubai Film Festival, and the grand prix award at the Fribourg International Film Festival.  

Known for his intimate portrayals of migrant workers, drifters, and refugees as they struggle against the forces of rapid economic growth, social dislocations, and increasing inequality in modern-day China, as well as his unique use of camera close-ups and long tracking shots, Wang Bing has won numerous awards for films that capture “not just [the] physical presence” of his protagonists, “but also something like their ‘souls.’”

The Daily Shot interviewed Mingwei Song, associate professor of Chinese at Wellesley, who helped to organize the event and will be hosting the Q&A after the film, to learn more about Wang Bing’s work.


Q: Wang Bing is often described as one of the greatest contemporary documentarians, and the foremost filmmaker of China’s New Documentary Movement. Could you tell us about the movement and what makes Wang Bing’s work so significant?

Mingwei Song: China’s New Documentary Movement began in the early 1990s, just after the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square. Underground filmmakers were seeking a novel way to depict China’s economic and social reality. At first, those films were largely about students, artists, homosexuals, social outcasts, and marginalized social groups—people who have different opinions on political or social issues. Then many of the new documentary films began to focus on migrants coming to the cities in search of work. 

Wang Bing is a key figure in this movement. His unique strength lies in a profound new means of seeing and depicting Chinese reality. His first film, West of the Tracks (2003), created a new aesthetic in filmmaking, epitomized by his signature shot: long tracking shots moving along a railway. The camera shows a bleak environment, deserted towns, and dehumanized working environments, all of which point to the uncertainty of China’s future. 

Q: What was the first Wang Bing film you ever watched, and what was the experience like?

Song: I first watched Wang Bing’s nine-hour documentary West of the Tracks on DVD, and it took me a long time, days, to finish. I felt that it was a haunting, powerful narrative. This past week I watched the film at Collins Cinema, together with other audience members, from the beginning to the end. The film feels more whole, even more raw, and more personal, particularly toward the end. The uninterrupted duration of narrative time and total immersion in a theater setting provides a more poignant viewing experience.

Q: This visit marks Wang Bing’s first complete U.S. retrospective, which includes a three-film screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Why and how did Wellesley arrange to be a part of the retrospective?

Song: I was surprised to discover that Wang Bing has never visited the United States before as he frequently appears at European film festivals. A friend contacted me about his visit to Wellesley, and I also worked with a Harvard colleague so that he could visit Harvard too. Hosting Wang Bing at Wellesley was a collaborative effort between the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, Cinema and Media Studies, and the Department of East Asian Languages.

Q: Given the sensitive subjects (reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, poverty and disenfranchisement in contemporary China, etc.) of Wang Bing’s documentaries, are any of his films released in China? If they are, how are they perceived by Chinese audiences?

Song: His films have not been officially released in China because they are subversive, both artistically and politically. However, many people have watched his films in unofficial ways, on pirated DVDs or via online streaming, and he has been fêted by many international film festivals. His work has inspired people to think differently about Chinese history and Chinese society. 

Q: Why did you choose Three Sisters for the screening and discussion?

We actually selected two films to screen at Wellesley. I selected West of the Tracks [screened on November 7] because of its important place in Wang Bing’s career as his directorial debut. Three Sisters was selected by my colleagues due to its themes: young girls abandoned by their parents, a family fragmented by economic necessity, and the effects of the rural-urban divide on everyday lives.

Q: Could you talk about the relevance and appeal of a film like Three Sisters to Wellesley community members who may not be students of China, or of documentary film?

I hope Three Sisters will make the audience think not just of China, but also of the shared fate of women who seek to have an independent life. Just like West of the Tracks, which was not just about Chinese factory workers being laid off and fighting for compensation, Three Sisters is also about the common human experience of seeking dignity and connecting with others in difficult times.