Timber Gang by Yu Guangyi, Zhao Chuan
"Never Mind" Independent Film Screening VOL.9: Timber Gang
Curated by Zhao Chuan / Gao Zipeng
Producer: YU Guangyi
Director: YU Guangyi
Cinematographer: YU Guangyi
Art Director: Shen Shaomin
Editing: Yu Guangyi, Wang Guosheng
Length: 90 minutes
Timber Gang documents the life of a group of loggers in Heilongjiang Province, China. It records the most basic state of being and desire of humans amidst ice and snow, and serves as a document of a disappearing mode of production as well as living in the process of civilization’s progress.
Forests have been exploited for a living for over a century here. Due to the huge transportation inconveniences, people here still hold onto their inherited mode of production. Winter is the best logging season. Each year after a few snows, the forest farm management will consign a whole mountain or a whole valley to a contractor (“batou”), and the “batou” then entrusts a “sledge head”(“palitou”) to go to the villages and recruit villagers who have spare horses during the winter farming break. Two men prepare a sledge and provisions sufficient for a whole winter, select an auspicious date, and head for the depths of the mountains. There starts their logging life for the winter. They often slay a pig before their entry as a sacrifice to the Mountain God in exchange for blessing of safety and protection.
Humans are forced to shift the burden of their own existential crisis onto other living forms. A group of lonesome loggers are scattered in a universe of ice and snow to the oblivion of modern civilization. They struggle with fate and nature like beasts, yet they show their insurmountable dignity in the process.
Horses fare even worse than livestock in the mountains. They are worked until a back-broken death. While horses are highly valuable to the loggers, worth as much as half of their material belongings, they have to eat them in tears after the horses give away under the heavy work.
Patch after patch of primitive forests are felled down like crops do in autumn. Logs that are sent out of the forests are made into coffins. In spring, a coffin with an old logger in it comes back into the mountain. People sweep away the snow and pry open the frozen field. A big tree that was felled down after having grown here several hundred years now comes back to be buried in the field where it once was, with the person who fell it down lying in its embrace.
I grew up in the forests of Heilongjiang. Many people in Timber Gang were my childhood buddies. After school we often went to play in the big shack where loggers were living. They had two big heatable brick beds; many old bachelors were living there. Many of them had come from Hebei Province or Shangdong Province to find their fortune in the former Manchuria. They would sit on their bare bottoms on the brick beds, with a comforter over their bodies and start telling those wonderful magical tales in the mountains in the former Manchuria period. Those tales have become the most important part of my cultural life and extracurricular education.
I have been away from my hometown for about twenty years. In winter 2004, I went back and walked among the loggers again, eating and living with them for a whole winter. Everything about them deeply touched me; I found myself all tears during filming. It is as if I had entered a tunnel where time was reversed. What those old loggers had related years ago came back alive for real, scene after scene. In the 21st century, people still strive so hard in order to make a living. Is this really my hometown? I approached them and made it an obligation of mine to document their life with honesty.
Many of the loggers are from villages nearby the forest, their age ranging from seventeen to over fifty. They get up at three in the morning, make meals, prepare horses, and climb about six kilometers uphill. It takes over two hours to go uphill, but only a few minutes to go downhill. If one goes amiss, man and horse might fall through the woods or down to the mountain stream. In the Black Bear Valley, six horses have died in one winter while going downhill. One horse is worth over three thousand yuan, so six horses gone means a whole winter’s hard work has gone futile. The loggers work in the mountains during the day. When they go to bed at night, the over thirty pairs of bare, dark feet look like they belong to a pile of dead bodies…
As a result of the extreme coldness, fatigue, and hunger, these loggers suffer a local ailment called “heart overthrow”(gong xin fan) that endangers their life. It leaves them with limp limbs and a chilly, purple-colored body. The local therapy for this is bleeding, cupping, and shamanism.
Many moments that cannot be filmed are left behind the camera forever. A horse was trotting downhill with a sledge behind it; suddenly the logger slipped and fell in front of the horse. The horse saw its owner was about to be killed by its own hooves yet it could not stop. It immediately picked him up with its mouth and rushed on downhill. The sledge came to a stop; the logger owner hugged his horse, breaking into tears: “I will always keep you and feed you until you get old; I will see you off properly when you die.” Years ago, another logger was alone in the mountain. Coldness, loneliness, boredom, and libido drove him to have sex with his horse in the quietness of the night…
I was fortunate to spend a cold, long winter with these loggers and became witness and documentarians of a part of their real life. When I finished filming, it was already early summer of 2005. Editing took another year to finish in the busy, noisy city. Everyday while I was going through the huge amount of raw footage, my sentiments were split between the life of the loggers and that of the fashionable city folks out in the streets. I felt divided between the traditional regional culture and modern industrial civilization, between the forests that are being cut down and the sandstorms hanging outside my window…
This might be just the age we are living in.