Chinese director Wang Bing is more than content to take his time. His documentary Youth (Spring), which premiered in competition at Cannes last Thursday, runs three-and-a-half hours long. His second Cannes film, Man in Black, runs considerably shorter at a mere 60 minutes, but it too unfolds patiently.
Man in Black, a Monday night premiere in the festival’s Special Screenings section, begins with an elderly man moving slowly and silently in the shadows of an empty auditorium. It takes some moments for the audience to realize he is nude. He holds a railing as he makes his way along an aisle. As he descends a staircase a classical score erupts with percussive force.
This is Wang Xilin, one of China’s leading classical composers, laid bare. The camera follows as he makes his way to the stage, entering a key light. It pans around his feet, circles his torso, settles on his striking face. Though unlined and starkly handsome, it is a face that radiates with the gravity of a man who has endured brutal torture at the hands of Chinese authorities.
There is no dialogue to speak of in the film until almost 21 minutes in, when Wang sits on a padded bench in the quiet theater. Words pour out of him, but this is not a standard interview by any means. Not only is the subject unclothed, but he seems completely unaware of the camera. This is a person revisiting his past, confronting painful memories, alone.
Wang recounts that at the age of 13, in 1949, he joined the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party’s military wing. He got the opportunity to attend a school for composers run by the military and later studied at the Shanghai Conservatory. But he chafed against the ideological bent of the instruction.