“Alzheimer’s,” says someone during the opening scene showing Fang Xiuying when she was still able to walk. That word means death is present, right from the outset. We spend most of the film a year later, at Fang’s deathbed in a village in South China. She is untreatable now, and can no longer speak. She lies surrounded by family and neighbors.
The women provide most of her physical care. The men mostly just offer comments: “Her neck is red ... her knees are cold ... it won’t be long now.” “Are you a doctor?” somebody scowls. Between times we follow several men who go out fishing at night with an electrified scoop net—life must go on, after all.
The camera observes—in long, durational shots. At the center of all the bustling around her bed, the fussing and the moaning, we always return to Fang’s face. She watches and she waits. She can do nothing else. Like us, she is just a spectator. Wang Bing directs his documentary (winner of the 2017 Locarno Golden Leopard) towards the essence: the attentive observation of life, and the privilege of being present for the last days of Fang Xiuying’s existence.