West of the Tracks (Tie Xi Qu) would be a remarkable film under any circumstances. But the fact that it was the first project of young filmmaker, Wang Bing, essentially working alone with a digital video camera, shooting over a period of two years, then editing over several more years (the film appeared at a number of festivals in various forms before settling on its three-part, nine-plus hour final version), makes it completely extraordinary. (I managed to obtain a copy of a Dutch four-disk set from a Swiss online vendor.)
While living as a student in the northeastern city of Shenyang, Wang became interested in the region's vast industrial areas, a landscape of factories and foundries and worker housing, all interconnected by an extensive network of railways. He began to wander through the area, gradually getting to know some of the people who lived and worked there. Then he rented a camera and started to shoot what he was seeing.
This is not a documentary that sets out to give the viewer “information” or to present the filmmaker's argument about the economy, the social conditions, the politics of modern China. It is a film that evokes the experience of a time and a place from which the viewer can draw conclusions, recognizing on both an emotional and an intellectual level a devastating universality which much of the West shares with a China which has been undergoing massive upheavals as it transforms from a state-run to a market-driven economy. What we witness in West of the Tracks is similar to what we have seen, for instance, in Michael Moore's Roger & Me, with its depiction of the social devastation wrought by American industrial decline. But Wang's approach and sensibilities are vastly different from Moore's.
Wang entered this environment long after decline and decay had taken root. Factories which had once employed tens of thousands of workers now have only skeleton crews of dozens. There's an almost science fictional quality to the images of these huge structures with their Metropolis-like machinery, populated by a handful of workers. Wang evokes these spaces with long hand-held tracking shots, following these men and women along corridors, through locker rooms and communal showers, out into the vast caverns where metals are smelted and huge overhead cranes swing their loads from one end to the other. He rides the trains which weave their way among the factories, letting his lens absorb the desolate deserted wastelands. He has a fascination with process, movement back and forth, trains linking and unlinking, men pausing to eat and talk, to shower and bathe, to play their minute fleshy roles among the decaying machinery of the factories.