An epic, magnificently shot chronicle of a tiny Chinese hamlet enduring one of its final yearly cycles of harvest and hardship, Liu Feifang’s delicate but mighty debut documentary feature “The Fading Village” is loosely organized around the last member of the newer generation to still live in the Shanxi Province village of Heishuigetuo. Goat farmer Hou Junli is 35, but whatever hope his relative youth might hold out for a rejuvenation of his hometown has already passed: While Junli tends to his dwindling flock under the hectoring instruction of his mother and the silent, saturnine eye of his aging father, his wife and son live in the city. And the boy dislikes the village because there are no malls and you can’t get a Wi-Fi signal: This is no country for young men.
Stories about “the dark side of China’s economic miracle” are in such plentiful supply as to have that phrase become something of a cliché, and to be sure, Liu’s nearly three-hour-long opus, on which maestro Jia Zhangke is prominently thanked, does not reinvent the social-realist documentary wheel. But the unforced poetry that Liu, who has a background in photography and acts as co-DP with Cheng Chiaming, finds in his heart-stopping landscapes and up-close portraiture makes us feel the scale and weight of this slow-acting tragedy anew.
As is often the case with lyrically minded Chinese arthouse cinema, the film is mapped out in sections corresponding to the seasons (Gu Xiaogang’s Cannes title “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” is another recent example), as though only something as momentous as the tilt of the Earth’s axis could provide a grand enough framework for an investigation into the massive social forces at work in modern-day China. And so, under the sweet but not overly pathos-laden melodies of Roc Chen’s soulful score, we’re plunged into wide shots of endless springtime mountains contoured into looping terraces as far as the eye can see; huge, changeable skies that swallow almost the entire frame with only the weedy broken tiles of the village rooftops reminding us there is ground at all; and grassy, rocky or sometimes snowy hillsides to which grazing goats cling like lint.
When winter returns like an annual catastrophe, the lakes freeze into solid crescents from which the household water supply is chipped in ice form. Firewood must be culled from denuded trees as gnarled as the bodies of the farmers grown bandy-legged under the toppling weight of bales of straw or sacks of dung. The ice will thaw again, but here, the progression from spring to spring (Liu filmed over the course of 2016 and 2017) feels less like a cycle and more like a countdown.
Wisely, the director’s onscreen interference is minimal. He does not include any voiceover, and the interviews with the remaining dozen or so village inhabitants, most of whom are in their 70s or 80s, feel more like unguarded conversations between friends. In the past, remembers one old-timer sadly, neighbors helped neighbors with no thought of recompense. Now, for even a couple of hours of plowing, everyone expects to be paid. And indeed most of the conversations in the village — except those in which people constantly asking each other, “Have you eaten?” — revolve around money. The bargaining and the discussions over price never end: How much for some oil? How about a couple more yuan per kilo of cashmere? Shouldn’t he have held out for 600 per goat?
For hospital visits, time with Hou’s family and check-ins with a couple of the other men who left the village long ago, Liu occasionally makes a trip to one of the nearby cities, Taiyuan or Yuanping — the vertical thrust of their skyscrapers contrasting with the horizontally striated mountains, even when they’re wrapped in the same mists. But the film’s heart, like Liu’s, and like ours by the end, lies in Heishuigetuo.
At the outset, one might wonder how so insignificant a scattering of dwellings can really deserve this lengthy a living memorial. But just like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, the act of bearing such minute witness to Heishuigetuo’s decline brings its own peculiar gravity. This place and this way of life may be dying, but Liu’s gorgeous first film staves off the fading-away for just a few moments. And it’s hard to begrudge the village a single verse of its farewell song, when like any entity facing its end, all it can do is remind us with its refrain: “I was here. I was here.”