Wang Bing’s Golden Leopard-winning documentary presents an intimate study of the final days of an elderly Chinese woman

Mrs Fang

Dir/scr: Wang Bing. Ch-Fr-Ger. 2017. 86 mins

The agonising last days of a woman in the final stages of Alzheimer’s are captured in a stark, unflinching manner by Wang Bing’s gruelling documentary. The Locarno Golden Leopard honour will guarantee further Festival attention for Mrs Fang, but it could prove too challenging and oppressive for all but the most dedicated cineastes.

Mrs. Fang is unreservedly voyeuristic, the camera maintaining its own vigil

We initially see brief glimpses of farmer Fang Xiuying in October 2015 at Maihui Village near Huzhou. Mobile but emotionally fragile, she has a slightly bemused manner. The focus then shifts to June 2016; she is now bedridden, unable to speak, unable to swallow and unresponsive to a devoted, extended family who maintain a bedside vigil. Her daughter, brother-in-law and nephew are among the many who pay their respects. Liquid is administered by a syringe, hands are grasped in sympathy. As she stares into space, locked in a private world, family members wonder if Xiuying is aware of anything that is going on around her.

Mrs. Fang is unreservedly voyeuristic, the camera maintaining its own vigil over Xiuying who is seen in lengthy, merciless close-ups staring straight ahead. Her mouth is held in a rigid grimace. It feels unbearably intrusive, and yet the film has clearly been made with the blessing of the family and in full awareness of the process. At one point a family member even politely enquires if the cameraman has enough light.

Over a number of days, the family search for the slightest change in Xiuying’s condition. Is her breathing more laboured? Are her eyes more glazed? Are her joints more brittle? She is judged to be ” sinking slowly, like a boat in the river”. Strained conversations revolve around the banalities of death; arrangements for her funeral and the necessity for other relatives to be contacted when it appears that the end is approaching.

Everyone has an opinion and everyone seems to consider themselves a doctor, judging whether she is too hot or too cold, fading fast or likely to linger. Whether practical or argumentative, we come to realise that each family member has their own way of showing their love and affection.

The only respite in this rigorously unsentimental film comes as three of the men take to the river to fish at night. There are glimpses of a local community, battered by heavy rains, marked by poverty and where a drab grey seems to be the predominant colour.

We learn very little about Xiuying and see nothing of her life before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We are eventually told that she suffered with the illness through the last eight years of her life, and hear memories of the time she considered divorcing her husband. Those few precious details make it all the more poignant when we realise that she was only 68 when she died.

Production companies: Idéale Audience, Wil Productions

International sales: Asian Shadows

Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Yang Wang, Kong Lihong

Cinematography: Wang Bing, Shan Xiaohui, Ding Bihan

Editor: Wang Bing, Dominique Auvray

Production design: Wu Shenfang, Zhu Zhu

Featuring: Fang Xiuying