Chinese Realities: Review of ‘Though I Am Gone’

June 3, 2013 Updated: June 3, 2013

Wang Qingyao’s words have an eerie resonance. He is determined that his wife’s murder during the Cultural Revolution will not be denied or forgotten by the guilty and embarrassed parties. 

Despite his personal pain, he documented his family’s tragedy with remarkable thoroughness. It is an acutely personal story, but one with national significance for China, that unfolds in Hu Jie’s “Though I Am Gone,” which screens in New York during the Museum of Modern Art’s “Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions” film series.

During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing schools were incubators of institutionalized insanity, and Wang’s wife role as middle school vice principal made her a target. 

When the Red Guards began terrorizing the country, their children followed their lead. Even though Bian considered herself a loyal communist since before 1946, she was forced to endure physical beatings and public humiliations on a daily basis. 

Fearing for her family’s safety, Bian resigned herself to the torments. One day, the students took it too far, and rather than taking her to the hospital literally one block away, they just threw her out like a sack of garbage.

Her husband was not on hand to witness the torture she endured. It only would have made things worse for her. However, the trained journalist photographed her battered body and saved evidence of her ordeal, including the blood- and excrement-soaked clothes she wore during her final hours. 

Years later, an anonymous source came forward to give him an exact account of the events. Not surprisingly, though, only Bian’s fellow victims agreed to participate in Hu’s documentary.

As a filmmaker, Hu’s approach is as simple and straightforward as it can be. Even eschewing soundtrack music, he focuses his camera on Wang and his photographs, allowing the man to tell Bian’s story in his own words. He also incorporates archival recordings of the state-sanctioned madness as well as personal testimony from Bian’s colleagues.

Speaking of the need to bear witness, Wang Qingyao echoes sentiments often heard in Holocaust survivors’ oral histories. When he eventually produces a photo of the smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium where his wife’s remains were incinerated, the symmetry becomes profoundly unsettling. 

While Hu maintains an intimate focus on Bian’s story, he masterfully conveys a sense of how truly representative it was of rampant, widespread horrors.

On a technical level, “Though I Am Gone” is a simple film, but it is emotionally devastating. This is an incredibly brave exposé of events that the communist regime would prefer to forget. 

4 stars

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit http://jbspins.blogspot.com

Director: Hu Jie
Cast: Jingyao Wang
Running Time: 1 hour, 6 minutes
Language: Chinese with English subtitles

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