Caroline Champetier, AFC, talks About the Shooting of "Man in Black", directed by Wang Bing

Memory in the Skin, by François Reumont

[ English ] [ français ]

Performance, art film, testimony of an artist in his autumn years - Man in Black is a new film by Chinese director Wang Bing, known for his documentary work, such as Youth, in Official Competition. Wang Xiling, a Chinese artist in exile and composer aged 87, bears witness to what he has seen and experienced as an artist. Naked, showing the scars of torture and abuse, he wanders through the spaces of the Bouffes du Nord, the legendary and beautiful Parisian theatre. He plays fragments of his works, sings… and above all recounts, in sparing unemotional prose, the experience of an artist under the Chinese regime. An intensely personal and moving film, with an image as powerful as the force of his narrative.
 Caroline Champetier spoke with us briefly about her collaboration with Wang Bing. (FR)

How did Wang Bing present the project to you?

Caroline Champetier : He had talked to me about his desire to film Want Xiling, a Chinese musician in his nineties. He imagined filming him naked, maybe in a place like the Bouffes du Nord. I knew of his installations, and I understood he wanted to me to collaborate on an art film, as I had with Sophie Calle on "Voir La Mer".
Renting the Bouffes du Nord is expensive, so we looked at other locations - Wang xiling lives in Berlin. But Wang Bing couldn’t let go of the idea of the Bouffes du Nord, I think because of the red walls, which are reminiscent of the Forbidden City. In Spring 2022 Wang Bing had his passport confiscated by the Chinese authorities, and he understood that he would never shoot again in China, the subject of his films for over two decades. He was exhausted by finishing the edit of Youth, a film which took him 10 years to make. And his producers decided it was a good time to shoot Man in Black.

Did he have specific intentions for the image?

CC :

 Wang Bing was convinced we had to use large format and anamorphic lenses. For the lighting, he trusted my judgement, we talking about a tomb, the protagonist as a ghost who wanders, sings, plays, recounts…
I understood Wang Xiling would be moving freely, that we’d have to adapt to his rhythm, long shots.
I spent a lot of time thinking through different options - I couldn’t communicate directly with Wang Bing because of the language barrier, there wasn’t that way of grasping things through a psychological understanding…
Finally I made a relatively risky choice, relying on my team: focus puller, grip, gaffer. We would use the Sony Venice 2 and a dolly directly on the theatre floor to follow or precede Wang Xiling, with shots lasting up to 20 minutes, the lighting following him also. That’s when I thought of the theatre projectors, which my gaffer Sophie Delorme and I went to see at Ris Orangis - we needed a perfect CRI for the skin tone. The rest of the theatre would be faintly lit by slightly cold skypanels, I wanted a contrast between the skin and the background. I asked Fred Savoir to handle the post-production because his workflow clearly transmits my images, and Erwan Kerzannet recorded sound on set.

The film is a kind of performance filmed over 3 days, and yet very edited, more fiction than recorded performance, finally. And the place appears as a protagonist, at the beginning and end.  

CC :

 The place is ageless, with the red walls attacked by time, it provided the art direction from itself. Wang Bing’s tenacity in getting the location paid off.

Wang Bing’s view is that the music is as important as the voice and the image in this film. Did you shoot with music? Or listen to the works as preparation?

CC :

 I listened to the music, but I didn’t understand it until the translation opened up for me what Wang Xiling is recounting, what he’s expressing in his music. At the moment of the shoot, we had disparate elements: a space, colours, a body, a piano, the music - and their relation appeared through taking one of them - the body - as the guiding principle. And Claire Atherton and Wang Bing then brought out that underlying meaning in the edit. We didn’t have that as a departure point. Advancing in the dark, but with total conviction. I had confidence in our shared gesture: how to look at this body, detail it, touch it, listen to it; There was something shamanic about the process, we were very focused, as one.

The lighting is de facto “theatrical”, given the location - but it’s in fact very simple, without artifice.

CC :

 Right from the start, talking to me about the project, Wang Bing spoke of skin, the scars on Wang Xiling’s skin, and I knew I had to get as close as possible to his skin, and so to light it in the most pure way possible, without varying its colour, bringing out its luminosity. I tried different approaches, until I thought: it could be lit by a torch. Talking with Sophie we thought of automatic projectors, also because I had recently used them in the lighting design for an opera, for Richard Peduzzi.
It was much bigger equipment than the initial scope of the production, but the director’s view of the project was visually and technically ambitious: 6K full frame, anamorphic lenses - which we finally switched for Cooke S7 to handle the focus with the artist moving freely.

Deep into the film, Wang Xiling describes Communist China as a country of prisoners. How can you be an artist without freedom?

CC :

 That’s more a question for Wang Bing. I think at that moment when he understood he would not return to China, he expressed very strongly what he felt, that’s what makes a great artist. The whole of this film, I believe, is an expression of his pain.
There is something extraordinary about Want Xiling, at least, as seen by Wang Bing.

Three questions asked of Wang Bing:

Why is he naked?

Wang Bing : When you take away a man’s clothes, you take away the distance between us. There are no prejudices, no preconceptions, no ego. Showing the naked body of this artist, is also showing his scars, the bullying, the blows, the torture that he suffered throughout his working life. The attacks on his art are embodied on screen by the body of the artist.

Why the Bouffes du Nord theatre?

WB : When I discovered this place, I was immediately struck by the resemblance to Chinese tombs. The view from the upper balconies, down onto the stage, it’s really that. It’s a unique place.

Why did you sometimes cover Wang Xiling’s voice with the music?

WB : As in silent films. The most important element is the music. Then the man, and obviously the subtitles. And the subtitles are there, even if the music covers the voice, conserving the words of Wang Xiling, his testimony.

((Interview conducted by François Reumont, and translated from French for the AFC))