TIFF review: Dead Souls

Wang Bing's eight-hour doc about a dark chapter in Chinese history is a monumental and intensive cinematic experience


DEAD SOULS WAVE D: Wang Bing. France/Switzerland. 495 min. Sep 7, 9:45 am, AGO Sep 14, 3 pm AGO. See listing. Rating: NNNN


Shot between 2005 to 2017 and clocking in at eight hours and 15 minutes, Dead Souls is likely the most intensive cinematic experience to be had at this year’s festival. The latest monumental work from documentarian Bing is a deep dive into a little-known aspect of Chinese history in intimate detail: hard-labour camps in the Gobi Desert where Mao’s government sent “rightists” to be re-educated in the late 50s/early 60s.

The film mostly comprises oral testimonies of elderly survivors, who recount bureaucratic machinations, daily life, starvation, cannibalism, small acts of generosity and family sacrifice.

Taken together, it’s an overwhelming and damning portrait, but the film’s power lies in heartbreaking, idiosyncratic and overlapping details. Bing films in his signature flat style, and as the hours tick by, differences and similarities in emotional tenor from speaker to speaker – some are garrulous, others reserved, some bedridden and gasping out stories, almost all are men – add transcendent dimensions to these tales of trauma and survival.

The final wordless sequence is unforgettable and shocking in its simplicity.

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