The ground of Jiabiangou is not strewn with dead souls. It is strewn with dry bones. The bodies have been dead now 60 years; what becomes of a soul that suffered as those sent by China's leaders to re-education camps at the end of the 1950s did is knowable only by those who have suffered too, and survived. Wang Bing's severe, almost (and intentionally) interminable Dead Souls, his third film on the camps, seeks to know that suffering, to excavate it through oral accounts, captured here in plain, mostly static shots cut only for convenience. Every detail is dredged up, every memory delved into, every perspective on life at Jiabiangou illuminated - this movie performs rather more like an inquiry than like a conventional documentary, and offers no apology, no comfort for performing as such. Wang's argument is that, far from serving as a tribute or as a form of justice for these survivors, his work should serve simply to record and to publish. That, alone, in its simple sincerity and its thoroughness, is all that he can offer.
It seems somewhat improper to review such a movie. It is, after all, everything it intends to be, and thus a paragon of documentary filmmaking. On its own terms, it is perfect, and to demand anything more from it would be crass behaviour. Dead Souls is purposefully tough to endure, both in content and in duration, and also deliberately tough, yet one cannot but regard such toughness as an issue, if not a shortcoming. The right viewer in the right frame of mind may find it enthralling, and horribly so... perhaps I am not entirely the right viewer. I have always felt that a great picture should reach out to its audience at least a little, something which Dead Souls nobly refuses to do. I can thereby only condemn myself for having lost interest, for having pondered about the time, for having queried Wang's methods and the quality of their outcomes - I cannot condemn the picture itself. And yet, it is me writing this review about this picture as much as it is me writing this review about this picture.
Such fallibilities of character were only momentary, though, since I too was horribly enthralled by Dead Souls. The stories it tells are predictably appalling, but it is in their accumulative volume and in the modesty and mundanity of their telling that they acquire their devastating force. Details both major and minor, both dwelt upon and skimmed over, profoundly sting just to hear, just to know the truth that lies behind them. It is this state of knowing that Wang Bing means to induce, and his movie's most essential features evidently ideal for inducing it. One can only strive to do what I did not: push past your discomfort, hang on every word, and listen that you will truly, genuinely know. These dead souls deserve that at least.