Cannes 2023 review: Man in Black (Wang Bing)

“The film is stunning, and the man is Wang Xilin, one of China’s most important modern classical composers, living in exile in Germany.”

In addition to his first appearance in Cannes Competition with Youth (Spring), Chinese documentarist Wang Bing brings another work to the festival. Shown in a special screening, Man in Black is as different as it can get from the majority of his films. It is short (exactly one hour), shot outside of China (in a theatre in Paris), and very stylized – the cinematography is the work of renowned director of photography Caroline Champetier, who has collaborated with numerous French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax (the previous film she worked on which was shown in Cannes was Annette).

A naked old man wanders in the hallways of an empty and dimly lit theatre, then walks onto the stage. The camera closes in on him, hovers around his body. He stands still, and seems to bow – but then he gets on his knees, moves around shaking, on all fours or back up, while mimicking what seems like repetitive acts of violence, constraint, and torture. Then he sings a cappella, before starting to talk. He tells us about his life as a young man in China, just as the country was being taken over by the Communist Party in 1949. Trying to work his way up as a music conductor, while at the same time undergoing the hardships of censorship and the coercion to fit in the mould imposed by the dictatorship, the man sees his life torn apart by the impossibility to do both. This harm reaches its apex at the time of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 – the man’s testimony of what he endured then as a political prisoner explains his enigmatic choreography earlier in the film. He was re-enacting the long walks through the desert, and the beatings that were the only interruption to them.

He might have survived this torture unlike so many others, yet the man did not truly re-enter the realm of the living. “I see no future“, he cries, and the close-up shots of his face made by Wang Bing show us, in his eyes, the extent of the pure rage that still burns inside of him. “Driven mad like so many others“, haunted forever by what he went through, he had no other choice but to find a way to put it into his musical art. “I’ll tell this story in a symphony“, how to express into sounds what it feels like to be beaten, chained in a cage, the burning of the flesh. The music that rose from these unbearable agonies accompanies his words and most of the time drowns them, like the pain overwhelming the mind and the body.

Wang Bing had already taken a step away from his regular documentary practice to address a subject similar to the one of Man in Black, in his work of fiction The Ditch about forced labour camps in the desert in the early 1960s. Here, he brings us as close as possible to grasping from the outside how torture destroys a man forever, what this man has been through, his sheer loneliness and torment. The director does so by mastering a wide range of aesthetic elements: the music and the speech, the choreography of the movements and the singing, the way the high-contrast cinematography captures his facial expressions and carves his bruised and scarred body into light and shadow. The film is stunning, and the man is Wang Xilin, one of China’s most important modern classical composers, living in exile in Germany.

(c) Image copyright: Wil Productions / Gladys Glover / Louverture Films / Wang Bing