Friday, January 27, 2017

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002)

Tiexi Qu, China / Netherlands, 551 minutes, documentary
Director / photography: Bing Wang
Editors: Bing Wang, Adam Kerdy

I'm going to go slightly off the tracks here first, because I think the basic fact of stupefying long movies is seeing them at all. I'm not even talking about the commercial availability of Tie Xi Qu, which is another matter entirely. This is a nine-hour movie. It doesn't matter what it's about. You have to figure out a plan for seeing it. In the current TV glut, viewers at least enjoy the utility of the formal breaks of episodes. A season of The Walking Dead, say, may last 688 minutes (16 episodes of 43 minutes each). Yet somehow that seems easier to take on than, for example, Satantango, even though The Walking Dead season in its totality is some four hours longer. A lot of TV show time is taken up with specific familiar rhythms: "previously on" recaps, formal titles and theme songs, closing credits, and usually mini-climaxes engineered every 12 to 15 minutes.

Movies like Tie Xi Qu are in a different category. You see it in the resistance everyone instinctively has to them as "too long," even by people who will watch hours on end of sports and TV shows on a daily basis. I would count Lav Diaz's Melancholia (450 minutes), the aforementioned Satantango (420 minutes), and above all Shoah (566 minutes)—as well as puny by comparison Frederick Wiseman titles such as Near Death (358 minutes) and Belfast, Maine (245 minutes)—as movies that form more of a basis for comparing and judging Tie Xi Qu. They work better in terms of the experience of seeing the film than categories such as documentaries, or modern Chinese and/or industrial history. Other comparable movies might include Dekalog (572 minutes), The Human Condition (579 minutes), The Lord of the Rings extended versions (659 minutes), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (930 minutes). But they also just bring more categorizing problems. The first three are arguably compilations of separate films, and Berlin Alexanderplatz is much closer to a typical TV season than a narrative film, except maybe for the three-hour finale. Of course, there are many more of these movies (start with Out 1 and/or more Wiseman titles), but these are the ones I've seen.

For that matter, in terms of breaking it down, Satantango and Tie Xi Qu are each divided into three parts. Shoah consists of two parts that are spread across four DVDs. (Melancholia, as I recall, is divided into sections but it's actually best viewed in a day.) Now, full disclosure, I never attempted Tie Xi Qu in the space of a day, though I did look at it a couple of times over a couple of weeks. And I would say the best way to see it is one part per day. As it happens, the first part, "Rust," is also the longest, at four hours. You're in for trials of patience no matter what—long takes, a sweeping cast of incidental characters, and just a lot of time to get to various points. You have to live with all the parts of this movie for a while.

That's because, as with Shoah, with which it has much in common, the story it is telling is big enough to warrant the time. It's not about the bureaucratic liquidation of 6 million people, but rather a quieter act of bureaucratic malevolence, the economic liquidation of 1 million people. That's still a big story. Time itself presses upon the viewer, in a very real way, when it is four hours of meticulously documented decaying industrial waste. The title cards at the beginning of "Rust" lay out the big historical picture:

Tie Xi District, located in the city of Shenyang in northeastern China, is the oldest and most extensive industrial manufacturing center in China. Built in 1934 to produce armaments for the Japanese Imperial Army, the factories were converted to civilian use, soon after the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.

By the late 1950s, the factories were being refitted with equipment provided by the Soviet Union. Much of it [was] WWII era stock captured from the Germans at the end of the war. Most of the 157 Soviet-financed industrial projects in China during this period were located in Tie Xi District and the surrounding industrial belt. After the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, many of these factories and their workers were relocated to the interior of China, but over 100 factories remained in operation.

In the early 1980s, factory employment in the district was at an all-time high. As workers, who had been "sent-down" to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, began returning to the cities, the workforce in Tie Xi District swelled to over one million people. By the early 1990s, however, most of these state-owned factories had begun to falter, and were operating at a loss. By late 1999, the factories began to shut down, one by one.

Enter director, cinematographer, and coeditor Bing Wang, who filmed in the area from late 1999 into 2001, by which time, it appears, grass and nature had returned to many parts of this once thriving industrial area. Within that time frame, it goes from bad to worst quickly (so to speak). This movie often rides for minutes at a time on the train tracks that crisscross the district. You get the impression Wang really loves shooting from the trains—one of the more obvious devices taken from Shoah. Indeed, these scenes are welcome and soothing respites when they come round again, as they do from the beginning to the very end. Mostly, however, Wang takes his camera into decrepit employee break rooms to listen in on workers' conversations as they sit around gossiping and bullshitting, playing cards, playing other board games, drinking, cussing, fighting, worrying. He also goes to their worksites, day and night, where the routines of heavy machinery are ponderous, complex, and fascinating, on a slow and massive scale—and yet evidently collapsing too as it all is. Yes, there's rust all over the place too.

Factories are abruptly going bankrupt and shuttering. Unpaid wages and salaries are a long-simmering issue. Promised pensions appear close to lapsing. The good times are ending, and from the look of it, the good times never got that good anyway. As in all economic bubbles, the best was always just ahead, around the corner. Now it is all collapsing. The first part of Tie Xi Qu closes on workers attempting to smuggle salvage out of factories as their jobs and the factory work formally come to an end. The second part, "Remnants" (which is three hours), shows the people systematically being removed from their homes in relocation programs with the promise of new living quarters. Then they are removed forcibly, when it comes to that. In the third part, "Rails," almost unbelievably, things are even worse, in this Valhalla of capitalism, as desperate people cling to their old lives by relocating to worse quarters or staying and squatting in their old homes.

So this documentary is not just a bit of a chore, it's also a total bummer—again, it has the greatest affinity that way with Shoah. Is it worth seeing? Come on. You may never have a chance. I'm only writing about it because it has spent the last couple of years in the top 20 of the list of "most acclaimed" 21st-century movies at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and I'm on a program here. I liked it, yes, I admired it a great deal, I sink easily and completely into its hypnotic rhythms and surprising gorgeous images and turns of event. And I'm glad that, for the moment,  the whole thing appears to be available on YouTube, because one of my freaking discs broke and I had to look at that part that way. And, yes, Tie Xi Qu was even better the second time. It might even merit its high placement on the TSPDT list. But wow is it a lot of work.


  1. Satantango comes in three parts? Heck, I might finally have to take Phil's advice and watch it! I love your whole discussion of long movies here, esp. relating to TV series. I'm currently watching the Oscar-nominated ESPN mini-series on OJ Simpson ... it's seven hours long, except it's really just five 90-minute segments.

  2. It's the episodic element in the narrative that makes the difference, I imagine. I don't know any of this stuff but I gather it operates on principles that turn conventional forms of film narrative on their head. I think of this comment from Wiseman I saw in a NYTimes story awhile back. Asked ab his work, he said he wasn't making a movie but waiting for a movie to happen, or something like that.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up on YouTube--downloading it right now, which takes surprisingly little time (about 3-4 minutes for one two-hour section). Looked into a DVD copy, much too expensive.

    I may not start till summer, but I'll absolutely watch this.