This will be one of many reviews during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. If you would like to keep up with our content, click here.
Synopsis: In Gansu Province, northwest China, lie the remains of countless prisoners abandoned in the Gobi Desert sixty years ago. Designated as “ultra-rightists” in the Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, they starved to death in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui reeducation camps. The film invites us to meet the survivors of the camps to find out firsthand who these persons were, the hardships they were forced to endure and what became their destiny. (Icarus Films)
Writer: Bing Wang
Director: Bing Wang
Running Time: 507mins
If you ever get the chance, it is recommended that you attempt to watch Dead Souls in one sitting. The 507-minute runtime may appear intimidating at first glance but its monstrous length loses meaning once Chinese auteur Wang Bing pulls you deep into a terrifying, forgotten and dehumanizing piece of Chinese history. Those familiar with Bing should take this runtime for a blissful walk in the park (if this were being compared to, say, Crude Oil, which polishes off at 15 hours long) but his ability to capture every emotion in his subjects through incredibly intimate conversations and camera positioning proves of how visceral of a filmmaker the man is.
There’s never a dull moment during these 8+ hours, which was incredibly impressive due to the fact that the entire film is mostly made up of lengthy interviews. These personal and descriptive talks between Bing and the subject paint a harrowing spectacle in your mind, that pulses against the walls of your brain and will refuse to leave for the entire time you’re in the cinema. Accompanied with this, Bing does bring us on-location to the re-education through labor campsites, where thousands of people died of starvation. These images are haunting, to say the absolute least and Bing harshly jerking the camera downward to reveal real human bones during a 15-some minute one-shot creates a nightmare of a realization that reverberates throughout the human souls. It isn’t necessarily a fulfilling reveal, due to how incredibly saddening it is to see but it does challenge the horrors you could only imagine visualizing in your imagination. It creates a pondering that screams questions about humanity at the very top of its lungs.
Throughout Bing’s entire career/filmography, he has made it clear that he loves the human race inherently despite our constant shortcomings and pitfalls; he’s able to see a brighter side in us all that not many others do. Which is why it feels like such a crushing weight to watch eight essential hours of human beings talking about their fellow kind at their most sinister. Although his documentation is thoroughly understanding and sympathetic when he conversates with his subjects, you can feel the compassion that Bing shares to these victims and their thoroughly explored lives leap into your heart from the screen, which leads to the overwhelming feeling this film left me with. It’s a mammoth built entirely around real humans who are able to open their hearts freely and discuss these tales of great sorrow while staring the event straight in the eye, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.