Labored But Elusive

A scene from Wang Bing's "Ta'ang," which screens at Anthology Film Archives for a week beginning May 5.

A scene from Wang Bing's “Ta'ang,” which screens at Anthology Film Archives for a week beginning May 5. | CHINESE SHADOWS/ WIL PRODUCTIONS

I suppose it’s inevitable that even the greatest directors will screw up from time to time. I’ve long considered Chinese documentarian Wang Bing one of his country’s greatest living directors. Unfortunately, “Ta’ang,” made last year and now receiving a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives, is the only Wang film I’ve disliked. (He’s already moved on with a new film, “Bitter Money,” which had a one-off screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in February.)

Wang’s exposure in the US has been limited, probably because his two best films, “West of the Tracks” and “‘Til Madness Do Us Part,” run nine and four hours, respectively. “Ta’ang” clocks in at a reasonable 147 minutes, but it feels longer than the entirety of “West of the Tracks.”

This film attempts to document the life of the Ta’ang people, a Burmese ethnic minority who have been forced to take perilous refuge in China due to civil war in Myanmar. Wang opens in a decrepit Chinese refugee camp for the Ta’ang. The refugee is a key image of our time, whether one views him or her as a photogenic victim (on the left) or a potential source of crime and terror (on the right). “Ta’ang” attempts to restore humanity to the refugee.

Wang Bing falters in film about Burmese refugees in China

Apart from onscreen text at the beginning and end, the film never offers clear context to the Ta’ang’s struggles apart from what they have to say in the course of their daily conversation. You could say it’s ideological in a larger sense but not political. But it offers a picture of refugees as full people, not walking versions of a politician’s talking points.

Wang is obviously extremely interested in duration and long takes. Up until now, this has suited him fine. The ability to capture extremely long scenes in one shot gets more problematic in “Ta’ang.” The film completely grinds to a halt during a lengthy section devoted to a group of Ta’ang people sitting by a fire talking.

There are several obvious points made: the Ta’ang live in a world without electricity, much less television, cell phones, or the Internet. The bright red glow of the fire gives the scene a demonic mood, casting the proceedings in a sinister light even when the conversation is completely innocuous. All these points are made very quickly, and the section seems to drag on for an hour. I’m usually not one to play armchair editor to filmmakers, but I would’ve preferred a version of this section cut by at least half.

In the past, Wang’s style has succeeded in immersing the spectator in someone else’s reality. His three-hour monologue “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” is the best film I’ve seen on the Cultural Revolution, and it represents filmmaking degree zero, consisting of a close-up of a woman talking about her horrible experiences for its entire length. Something’s happened since then. At least in “Ta’ang,” Wang’s sense of pacing has gone out the window.

The sequence set around the fire is the most egregious example, but the entire film feels bloated and damaged by the ease of shooting very long takes on video. At his best, Wang can take us to a completely different world, like the industrial town slowly being dismantled in “West of the Tracks”; some of the imagery of “Ta’ang” recalls the hellish fires of that nine-hour epic, but that’s all there is to this film. I haven’t seen “Bitter Money” yet, and Wang is so prolific that he’ll probably make a new film by 2018 too, but “Ta’ang” is an unwelcome departure from his usual excellence.

TA’ANG | Directed by Wang Bing | In Ta’ang with English subtitles | Chinese Shadows/ Wil Productions | Opens May 5 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. |