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‘Man In Black’ Review: Wang Bing’s Cannes Documentary Paints Powerful, Stripped Down Portrait Of Dissident Chinese Composer Wang Xilin

Chinese director Wang Bing is more than content to take his time. His documentary Youth (Spring), which premiered in competition at Cannes last Thursday, runs three-and-a-half hours long. His second Cannes film, Man in Black, runs considerably shorter at a mere 60 minutes, but it too unfolds patiently.

Man in Black, a Monday night premiere in the festival’s Special Screenings section, begins with an elderly man moving slowly and silently in the shadows of an empty auditorium. It takes some moments for the audience to realize he is nude. He holds a railing as he makes his way along an aisle. As he descends a staircase a classical score erupts with percussive force.

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Composer Wang Xilin in 'Man in Black'
Wang Xilin in ‘Man in Black’

This is Wang Xilin, one of China’s leading classical composers, laid bare. The camera follows as he makes his way to the stage, entering a key light. It pans around his feet, circles his torso, settles on his striking face. Though unlined and starkly handsome, it is a face that radiates with the gravity of a man who has endured brutal torture at the hands of Chinese authorities.

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There is no dialogue to speak of in the film until almost 21 minutes in, when Wang sits on a padded bench in the quiet theater. Words pour out of him, but this is not a standard interview by any means. Not only is the subject unclothed, but he seems completely unaware of the camera. This is a person revisiting his past, confronting painful memories, alone.

Wang recounts that at the age of 13, in 1949, he joined the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party’s military wing. He got the opportunity to attend a school for composers run by the military and later studied at the Shanghai Conservatory. But he chafed against the ideological bent of the instruction.

“I was tired of their preaching,” he says. “They said to compose music, first and foremost you need correct thought and a knowledge of Marxism-Leninism.” He split from the Communist Party, a decision that he says earned him abuse from his fellow students. “The whole class condemned me for wrong thought.”

'Man in Black'
‘Man in Black’

It was to be an introduction into the price of going against Communist Party orthodoxy. Things took a more dire turn with the advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, with its rigid imposition of ideological correctness. Wang publicly criticized making art subservient to politics, a controversial statement that made him an immediate target for persecution. He recalls being taken into custody, tortured and beaten so severely that he partially lost his hearing and had his teeth knocked out. He and other prisoners, he says, were paraded on grueling marches, signs hung around their necks that read “Counter-Revolutionary.”

Wang’s piano teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory, Lu Hong-en, he was to learn, had been executed by firing squad in 1968, one of many artists purged during the Cultural Revolution. Other composers took their own lives before authorities could annihilate them.

Despite the intense repression, Wang managed to write numerous symphonic works. His compositions, shattering in their intensity and foreboding themes, are interspersed in the documentary. At times when he is unburdening himself of his memories, the score swells, drowning out his words. The music speaks for itself.

'Man in Black'
‘Man in Black’

Off to one side of the stage, a piano is illuminated in a beam of light. Wang periodically takes a seat at it, playing his ominous music. At other moments he sings operatically, his powerful voice as resonant as a monk’s chanting.

Man in Black constitutes one of the most unique “biographical” documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s not an assemblage of archive clips and interviews, the kind of stuff typically seen in films about artists. This is more like an evocative tour of a man’s mind – a man who bravely pursued his art in defiance of a regime that tried to control or silence him.

The film was shot in May 2022 at the Théâtre des Bouffes in Paris. The exceptional lighting creates the atmosphere of a dark study, in keeping with the subject’s contemplation of his painful experience. Elegant camera moves by Caroline Champetier feel as gracefully choreographed as a ballet.

As to why Wang Xilin is nude throughout the film, I cannot say. But it does give one the sense of witnessing a person in a private moment of reflection, alone with his thoughts and memories. And stripped bare of any artifice or armature. A portrait of an artist who brought beauty and creativity into the world at immense personal sacrifice.

Title: Man in Black
Festival: Cannes (Special Screenings)
Director: Wang Bing
Cast: Wang Xilin
Running time: 1 hr
Sales: Asian Shadows – Chinese Shadows

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