A video travelogue with a poet’s grace, Ta’ang stands out in the new wave of timely documentaries concerning the situations of various refugee groups around the world. But while the word “refugee” might currently make you think of Syrians fording the Mediterranean, Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing (West of the Tracks) instead follows the mostly obscure plight of the Ta’ang people of Burma/Myanmar. With the decades-long conflict between the Burmese government and the separatist Ta’ang State Liberation Army flaring up yet again recently, thousands of displaced civilians have crossed the border to China in search of safety.
The various incidents Wang recorded in his time with the migrant Ta’ang are edited into seven main segments — four “days” which alternate with three “nights.” Each day/night cycle takes place in a different location, ranging from an impromptu refugee camp in Yunnan Province to a tea factory where refugees are both sheltered and given temporary employment harvesting sugar cane. Each new sunrise or sunset also introduces the audience to a new family or group to serve as the main set of subjects.
The day/night rhythm both gives a sense of structure to the otherwise fragmentary narrative and injects an ominous undercurrent of endless recurrence to these events. It’s as if we are watching not merely the story of one set of refugees in one specific circumstance but how the stories of so many refugees play out, both now and throughout history. This feeling is sharpened by the final day, which takes a reverse step of sorts by moving from China back to Burma, following a family getting its bearings on the border, having apparently just recently evacuated their homes.
Ta’ang is nearly two and a half hours long — and feels it. But Wang’s astonishing eye grants the doc an almost hypnotic power for most of that runtime. This is a film that knows with a seemingly supernatural instinct the precise distance to keep the camera from the subjects, when to move the frame, when to cut away from something and when to step into a scene. The result is a dizzying sense of immersion, as each sequence captures scores of small details and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them interactions. This is nonfiction film as a nearly pure experiential document.
One young girl demonstrates for another how to properly strip the leaves off sugar cane. Two men enhance their cigarettes with improvised bamboo bong-like devices. A woman shelters a candle’s flame from the night wind. All the while, guns pop and mortars rumble in the distance (this movie’s soundscape is rich, as well). Glimpses of both belligerents and aid workers are scant. Ta’ang is not here to hold the audience’s hand through a geopolitics lesson. it is about the people.