By Mónica Delgado

In a particular passage of the eight hours and twenty minutes of Dead Souls, the sterile and deserted plains of Gansu province, in northern China, are composed not only of dirt and dry plants but also skulls and other bones that are testimony of the massacres product of the extermination practices in the reeducation camps after the Cultural Revolution, created in 1955. Wang Bing, unlike his other films, delivers all his footage to give voice to a group of dissidents of the Communist Party, militants of the right or citizens with no political affiliation.

The testimonies of old men registered in a period of ten years, allow us not only a vision from the longevity of these narrators, that recuperate fragments of memories of tragic events (something that reminds us of Fengming, a Chinese Memoir), but also the monumental endeavor that Wang Bing undertakes. For the Chinese filmmaker, it is necessary not only to have an idea of what the interior of those camps held, places in the desert where people were starved to death, but also to obtain the stories and their capacity to transform the narration in bone-chilling images. A panorama of details, but also of totalities, obtaining visions from every angle, from the different views of the victims and their families.

Like in Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Wang Bing submits the spectator to an extensive and arduous footage (almost nine hours) of interviews that can last over half an hour each, with an structure of two parts, which difference may be in the boarding of the mortuary practices that appear in the first half and the impossibility of realizing them in the second one. We have a burial sequence of a group of victims in these fields, where their families read a heartfelt discourse in honor of the deceased father, and then we’re witness of the following of the body to a mountaintop, where it will be buried. Wang Bing places his attention to the depth of the space that will cradle the tomb, which allows the comparison with some bones in the outdoors that appear as an epilogue, as an offence to memory and the bodies.

If it’s true that Dead Souls is based in the registry of almost a dozen of extensive testimonies, extracted in the living rooms or dining rooms of the survivors, we also have exterior scenes where the filmmaker visits the clearings accompanied by some victims, who perform some rites for their lost ones, or also interviews the inhabitants in their place, farm people or shepherds, that have occupied these cemeteries to conform a new visceral layer, that can’t overcome the horror. Then he turns to the reading of letters, something that gives an intimate and raw perspective of the past. And in the epilogue, Wang Bing achieves to capture the emotional and political summa of the dimension of horror in this extermination camp, which was active until some years ago in communist China. An anomaly in this edition of Cannes, powerful and brutal, a film made to shake.

Special Section Cannes 2018
Director, camera and script: Wang Bing
China, 2018, 495 minutes