‘Chinese Portrait’ shows snippets of life all over China

This documentary by Wang Xiaoshuai takes viewers all across China, its lack of commentary or voiceovers making it a “pure picture” up for anyone’s interpretation.

This article contains spoilers for the documentary “Chinese Portrait.”

After the first few scenes of “Chinese Portrait” are shown, the audience slowly realizes the intention of the film by director Wang Xiaoshuai.

What appeared to be still images began to move, shown through a car going in and out of the frame or the subtle scratch of the neck. Nothing particularly exciting occurs through the documentary, but it’s captivating in its own way. The clips shown seem to be randomly inserted, but together they form a cohesive picture of what China is like, especially for the everyday folk. It’s unfiltered and unscripted, but it works in telling the story.

Wang explained in a Q&A after the screening that the film was meant to be presented sort of as postcards of different Chinese provinces. Originally, Wang had considered using his clips to create an art exhibition, where there may be four videos projected on each side of a room all at once, natural sound coming from each side. However, Wang decided that he would continue to play on his home turf as a filmmaker after all.

“A documentary usually has a voiceover describe what is happening, but then it’s like… stupid,” Wang said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Like, I think we should just come back to the pure picture, the pure film. We don’t even use subtitles. I just let [the audience] guess and feel. That’s the basic idea.”

Wang uses film to shoot the clips. Each roll ran for four minutes, so he had his subjects stare at the lens for the entirety of the film, asking for them to be as still as they can be. It’s fascinating, because the lack of narrative allows for audience members to pick up the small movements of the subjects, to listen to the sound of nature and the details of each scenes.

“Life is like this, you know?” Wang said, revealing that he had expected interesting things to happen while filming. “It’s quite peaceful. Nothing happens. Nobody’s scratching me, nobody’s trying to shoot me.”

However, the simplicity of the documentary, which lacks any major climax points or narrative, is charming. It may move slowly at first, but you may find yourself feeling more and more enraptured by the various scenes, which included random everyday people like construction workers, farmers, officer workers and families.

Wang confessed that he had originally wanted to title the documentary as “Waiting.” He thought that the period that his country is in was sort of like a waiting period in terms of change and movement, but he decided it was too political. The original name of the film could be related to how he personally intended the film to be like.

“I believe that for foreign photographers that come into China, they don’t take photos that have meanings,” Wang said. “They just keep the photos. But after decades, when you look back, it shows all of the meanings. For me, when I’m shooting this, I don’t spend time thinking what it means. I think that after years when we come back to watch it, it will be full of emotions and meanings.”

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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