West of the Tracks (Tie Xi Qu)
by Wang Bing
color, 554 minutes, 2003
Tie Xi is a massive industrial complex in northeastern China's Shenyang province. Built during the Japanese occupation of China and restructured with Soviet support after World War II, it is the country's oldest and largest manufacturing center. From the postwar period to the 1980s, the thriving factories employed more than a million workers, but like other state-run industries they began their collapse in the early 1990s.
In West of the Tracks, filmmaker Wang Bing documents the slow, inevitable death of an obsolete manufacturing system. Between 1999 and 2001 he meticulously filmed the lives of the last factory workers, a class of people once promised glory during the Chinese revolution. Now trapped by economic change, the workers become deeply moving film heroes in this modern epic. The film is an engrossing portrait of Chinese society in transition. Cahiers du Cinema compares Wang Bing to the great Russian writers and calls his film "a masterful production, an open file on realism." West of the Tracks "opens up a new and radical era in cinematography."
"Without question the greatest work to have come out of the Chinese documentary movement, and must be ranked among the most extraordinary achievements of world cinema in the new century." — Lu Xinyu, New Left Review
"Capturing moments both large and small...this profoundly empathetic and humanist work bears witness to a vanished way of life and the real cost of progress." — Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times
"A transfixing experience - if an undeniably demanding one - Wang Bing's nine-hour documentary on Chinese industrial decay should take its place as a key work of socially minded vérité" — Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
D.E.R. is proud to announce the North American distribution of West of the Tracks. The film has three parts - Rust, Remnants, and Rails - which may be viewed and purchased separately.
Rust (244 minutes) - watch a preview
With his DV camera, Wang Bing accompanies the few remaining foundry employees at the last furnace as they go about their working activities. Bankruptcy appears inevitable, and from the internal workings of the factory to the employee's lounge, Wang Bing traces a fascinating portrait of a dying way of life.
Remnants (178 minutes) - watch a preview
Rainbow Row is shantytown that was constructed in 1930 to house the laborers of the Tie Xi district. The area used to be known as Handmaiden's Grave, and now its residents are faced with unemployment and unpaid salaries. A young man scours the local fairgrounds after a lottery event, looking for discarded winning tickets. In the Winter, trash and snow pile up in the streets. 17-year-old Bobo and his friends spend their time at the Lucky Swan market, thinking up schemes to get dates, and money. Young children collect cans while an old woman hawks tofu. On Summer evenings, men gather outside of their houses to play cards and mahjong.
It is announced that Rainbow Row will be demolished to make way for a private development. Everyone has to leave within the month. Residents are angry and confused. The streets are filled with possessions for sale as most people prepare to move, salvaging whatever they can take with them. The proprietor of the Lucky Swan Market watches as city workers cut the power lines for good. The bustling neighborhood gradually empties, until Rainbow Row is a ghost town, covered in snow and empty of all but a few families.
Rails (132 minutes) - watch a preview
A system of freight railways carries raw materials and finished goods in and out of Shenyang. Lingering snow and smoke create an oppressive atmosphere, and there are few signs of life as the trains make their way through the maze of nearly-abandoned factories. Workers do their jobs mechanically, passing the time with gossip, cards, and cigarettes. Gathering coal to heat the freezing break room is a major concern. Like many others, Old Du is concerned about his family's future. He and his teenaged son live uneasily, afraid of being evicted from their tiny apartment.
Spring brings a short relief from the harsh weather, and now instead of snow, weeds cover the tracks. Rail workers relax in shorts. An argument flares up between a worker and one of the bosses, but things settle down into the regular rhythm of running the trains. Autumn comes around, and searching for scrap metal in the freight yards is a popular way to earn extra money. Old Du and his son have moved. For the 2001 Chinese New Year, he lights a single firework in the field next to his house. Friends come for drinks and a steaming hot meal, and the conversation turns to cynicism about love and marriage, as everyone helps make a batch of dumplings.
Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Grand Prize, International Documentary Festival, Marseille, 2003
Grand Prize, Festival du Film, Yamagata, 2003
Grand Prize, International Documentary Festival, Lisbon, 2002
Berlin International Film Festival, 2002
Montgolfiere d'Or juried prize for documentary, 3 Continents Festival, Nantes
Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca, NY, 2009
Article: West of the Tracks - Salvaging the Rubble of Utopia from Jump Cut Magazine