The China that you won’t see, as Wang Bing observes with tenderness the daily lives of a young girl and her siblings in a poor rural village in Yunnan province.
Dir. Wang Bing
2012 | Hong Kong/China | Documentary | 153 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
Not rated – likely to be PG
Plot: Three little sisters, Ying, Zhen, and Fen live alone in a small village in the high mountains of the Yunnan region. The father works in the nearby town and the mother has left long ago. The little girls don’t go to school, spending their days working in the fields or wandering in the village.
Awards: Best Film – Orrizonti (Venice)
International Sales: Chinese Shadows
Subject Matter: Moderate – Poverty, Rural China, Children in Society
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: General Arthouse
There is a shorter version that exists called Alone that had been reedited by Wang Bing, but this much longer 153-minute version is the definitive one, winning Best Film at the Venice Film Festival’s Orrizonti sidebar.
Three Sisters is considered short by Wang’s standards, and it is a good introductory point to the style of his documentaries, which may be best described as observational or naturalistic. He sets up his camera in the centre of things, yet neither it nor his presence feels intrusive.
In Three Sisters, he follows Yingying, the eldest of the titular trio, as she tends to her two siblings and the precious livestock that they own. Their mother has left the family, while their father works in a nearby city, returning only once every few months to visit. Their grandfather and relatives occasionally provide support—and in several indelible scenes of extended family gatherings, we see them cook and feast together.
Yingying is a fascinating central yet ‘peripheral’ figure—she doesn’t speak much but is a dutiful girl who longs to study but must contend with the endless labour that she and many others do to ensure that their subsistence-based farming methods allow them to survive for years to come.
Wang sets her story against the strong winds and hilly landscape of rural Yunnan, giving us one astonishing visual after another. It is the milieu that Yingying functions in that proves most compelling, where we witness the poor living conditions and close-to-zero prospect of attaining the resources needed to improve their lives.
Bing’s camera, unjudgmental and full of tenderness and compassion, shows us a part of China that you won’t see in studio- or state-produced/censored fare.
Like his later ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), a depressing and claustrophobic glimpse into a mental institution in China, Three Sisters captures these young children in a ‘natural prison’, a life of sameness and poverty that they are likely to lead for the next half-century.