An experimental documentary of modest means and sweeping scale, Chinese Portrait offers a scintillating snapshot of a rapidly changing nation. Director Wang Xiaoshuai assembled the film from footage taken during his travels around the country over course of a decade. Much like a travelogue, then, Chinese Portrait moves the viewer through urban construction sites, desert landscapes, and roadside eateries, among other diverse locations. In all but one of the film’s discrete shots, the frame is completely fixed, though Wang’s portraiture incorporates movement (mostly of individuals going about their work) as much as stillness (subjects staring directly into the camera as life unfolds around them). Much of the appeal here is the film’s sheer breadth. The atmosphere of various shots ranges from dystopian anomie to pastoral calm. Other compositions have a touch of humor and cavernous sense of space that recall nothing so much as Roy Andersson’s sensibility, if it were somehow channeled into non-fiction.
More often, though, the film resembles the work of Nikolaus Geyrhaulter, such as Earth or Homo Sapiens — though what’s distinct (and surprising) here is that Wang doesn’t seem to have any larger argument in mind. There’s certainly no polemical statement or sense of urgency to match Zhao Liang’s recent documentary Behemoth. On the one hand, this means that Wang’s choices occasionally come across as arbitrary. (The relatively quick succession of cuts at one factory location stylistically diverges from the rest of the film with no discernible purpose.) On the other, the fact that Wang actively resists establishing a structure or developing a statement means that each shot is self-sufficient, and thus unusually attentive to its (human) subjects. Although there’s a bevy of sociopolitical implications one could draw from the film, there’s ultimately no dominant message — only a sense of life being lived.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.