Perhaps the most impactful kinds of documentary films are the ones that offer a window to a world that we can’t believe exists. We expect fantastic places and otherworldly stories from far-out fiction filmmakers, but when a documentary filmmaker captures something you’ve never considered or – more importantly for cinema – have never seen with your own two eyes, the experience can take you by surprise.
Three Sisters profiles the titular siblings 10-year-old YingYing, 6-year-old Zhenzhen and 4-year-old Fenfen, who live alone in Xiyangtang — a tiny rural village located in the high mountains of China's Yunnan province. The children’s mother abandoned the family years earlier, and their father is away from home and working in the city. Although an aunt and cousins live nearby, the threesome operate as an independent family unit, herding sheep, goats and pigs and collecting wood and dung for fires. The siblings do homework and play and stand still staring or slowly wandering through mist-draped pastures while they follow along after the animals they care for.
In other cinematic stories about kids on their own, we get fantasies like any of the many Peter Pan movies or dystopias, like Peter Brook’s take on Lord of the Flies (1963). In this film, director Wang Bing gives us something else: the kids don’t create a dream world or even a dream world that goes bad. These three sisters are simply trapped in a world of adult responsibilities that they must master in order to survive. Do you know any 4- or 6- or even 10-year-old kids who could manage a livestock farm and run a household? Neither do I.
Bing is a leader in China’s independent documentary film movement, and over the last decade his movies like Crude Oil, The Ditch and Fengming: A Chinese Memoir have established the director as a voice for prisoners, laborers and the poor. Three Sisters highlights the poverty and toil of rural Chinese farmers, but it’s a fascinating film because of its focus on its threesome of unlikely protagonists whose lives seem so oddly out of sync with their tiny bodies, cherubic faces and thoroughly childlike personalities.
Directors like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky have put life during Europe’s Middle Ages on the screen by using long, lingering shots and static and slow moving cameras to imitate the grinding pace of life one would’ve endured about 500 years ago. Bing points his camera at the youngest sister, Fenfen, while she sits in the ever billowing smoke from their dinner fire, occasionally waving it out of her face and coughing before she finally gives up and walks to the other side of the room. In another long shot, the kids stand next to a fence while 10-year-old YingYing inspects the hair and collars of her younger sisters for lice.
The young girls in this movie seem to live between a medieval-seeming world of sharing a farmhouse with animals and cooking all of one’s meals over an open fire, and another world where a truck suddenly rumbles down the road or a television is seen flickering in a dark corner of a room that is only lit by the burning dung that’s warming a circle of people all sitting on logs. The kids have zippered jackets and rubber galoshes, but they spend their whole day following pigs around on a mountainside like rural farmers in China have been doing since the animals were domesticated about 8,000 years ago.
Throughout the film, eldest sister YingYing wears a filthy white hoodie that shouts out the “Lovely Diary” brand, and while the word “lovely” might be a tough one to apply to the squalor and grinding poverty on display in Three Sisters, the film is a diary of a kind; it’s a record of lives that Bing admirably lenses without interaction or commentary. It’s like the girls – particularly YingYing – are simply opening-up the book of their lives to show us a world we wouldn’t know about otherwise. Occasionally one of the kids looks right into the camera, and a cameraman can be heard panting as he follows YingYing up the side of a steep slope in the midst of her chores, but otherwise Three Sisters puts us in that village, in that ancient-seeming farmhouse, on those pastures, and in the lives of these tough, funny and remarkably resilient little girls as only cinema can. Is there any movie magic more magical than that?
Three Sisters is currently available on DVD, and the film is streaming on Amazon Video, iTunes and Google Play.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.