The Case for Cinema Vérité: The Days 3 (Shenghuo Eryi 3 / 生活而已3 2017)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taiwan International Documentary Festival.

I previously wrote a piece decrying the filmmaker interventions in cinema vérité as nothing more than “bells and whistles.” Perhaps I simply hadn’t considered what kind of documentary cinema vérité is truly suited for. The Days 3 (Shenghuo Eryi 3 / 生活而已3 2017), by Chinese documentarian Wei Xiaobo, is a documentary that would be not only impossible but inappropriate to make any other way.

The documentary series follows Wei and his partner, Xie Fang, as they navigate daily life. The Days (Shenghuo Eryi / 生活而已 2011) found them graduating college, cohabiting, and trying to make sense of adulthood in modern China (specifically, the city of Changsha). In The Days 2 (Shenghuo Eryi 2 / 生活而已2 2012), they go through the complicated rituals and negotiations of getting married. This third installment focuses on their decision to have a child, Xie’s ensuing pregnancy, and the successful birth of their daughter. The opening shots center on Xie’s vacillating attitude toward having a child, from feeling socially pressured to accepting the urgency of her biological clock. After the initial ambivalence over whether to have a baby, the film moves on to the tragedy, stoically borne, of failed pregnancy, the anxiety of all the medical tests and procedures to ensure the next one sticks, the marvel of the changing female body, and the annoying miracle of breastfeeding and taking care of a newborn. Thematically, it’s a contrast between the biological wonder of life-creation and a medical bureaucracy that, in an effort to preserve life, can sometimes seem to smother that wonder.

Wei is necessarily both behind and in front of the camera, as director-editor-cinematographer and as documentary subject—or rather, husband of the subject. In terms of craft, he uses mostly static shots, minimally edited, and one gets the feeling that he’s shooting all the damn time. Aside from the main throughline, he also shoots his rooftop garden, a lecture he gives to a bored class of vocational media school students, his daily routines in the kitchen (he makes tofu from scratch), and their pets, a dog and two parrots—the parrots, unfortunately, add to a sound problem that makes them and sometimes Xie sound screechy at a high pitch. There’s even a scene in which he tries to catch a fly that, in the process, lands on his microphone and lens.

As a documentary of nascent motherhood, The Days 3 finds its true subject in Xie, and after the previous two entries, she is comfortable and open in the presence of the camera, to the point where at first we wonder if it’s hidden (in one scene it actually is). We get intimate glimpses of the minutiae of daily life that are often kept hidden for no other reason than that they have nothing to do with anyone else—jokes and allusions that carry a whole relationship on their back. The banter between them is savage, touching on death, poor genes, being “crazy” (perhaps a more general term of abuse in Chinese), beauty and a lack thereof, and other topics you would usually expect only in a bitter fight. But the mutual understanding of the commitment that ties them together takes the bite out of these insults, and the back-and-forth often had the audience in stitches. The final scene, though, breaks the spell, as Xie is paradoxically liberated by her post-partum depression to say what she really thinks of her husband: He’s a boorish bore (and the film agrees). It’s curious that, having gotten such a thoughtful and witty wife to marry him, Wei the prolific intellectual is presented in this way.

From a different perspective, Xie is also noticeably resigned to being married to the man with a movie camera and having everything in her life filmed. On a few occasions, she expresses exasperation that Wei is filming instead of doing something about a situation; at other times, when she asks him to do something, he sets the camera aside. Only twice is she caught off guard. The second time, she doesn’t have any underwear on (he preserves her modesty). The first time, the scene opens with Xie lying on the couch and the camera positioned behind her head where she can’t see it. A jump cut leads to a closeup of her asking Wei, “Were you filming the entire time?” (He doesn’t answer.) But then she follows up with, “Is that a film camera?” revealing that her surprise is less at Wei’s constant filming than at the (unseen) camouflage for his camera. It must look really funny, because she can’t stop laughing.

The experience of watching this 90-minute film is both engrossing and yawn-inducing; scene by scene, it’s utterly uninteresting, but taken in aggregate, it’s fascinating beyond measure. The Chinese title translates to “Just Life,” and indeed the pacing of the film, though heavily dependent on Wei’s selection of material and cutting of dead weight, closely tracks the mundane pacing of ordinary life, the momentous period of pregnancy becoming just another series of days. As someone once said, having a kid and learning to drive are two things that look scary, until you realize that most people do both just fine.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large together with the piece on The Act of Becoming (2015).

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