In the long opening shot of West of the Tracks, the camera stares from the cabin of a small goods train moving slowly through snow-muffled, abandoned factories. A few ghostly figures flit under a gloomy sky. The only sound in a silent landscape is the creak of its wheels. These three minutes are like a rite of passage into history. We are entering another world, one that has already been destroyed: a ruin of industrial civilization.

Tiexi—‘West of the Tracks’—is a district of Shenyang, the city once known as Mukden. For fifty years it was China’s oldest and largest industrial base, a fortress of the socialist planned economy. The origins of the zone go back to the 1930s, when Japan seized Manchuria and constructed a military-industrial complex for its further advance into China. Factories were built in the south of Mukden, producing weaponry for the Kwantung Army and machinery for large-scale military enterprises, and workers’ housing grew around them. After Liberation in 1949, the ussr supplied China with additional industrial equipment dismantled from Germany at the end of the war, in what were known as the 156 Investment Projects of Soviet aid, most of which were located in the North-East. Favourably situated close to Russia, and building on the industrial foundations left by Japan, Tiexi became a pioneer example of Soviet-style planning in a region that served as an engine of socialist modernization for the country as a whole. As late as 1980, around a million workers were employed in the plants of Tiexi, and even today the state owns three-quarters of assets in the province of Liaoning, of which Shenyang is the capital.

In the Reform Era, as China’s path of development shifted from a planned to a market economy, Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy concentrated investment first in the Pearl River Delta and then around the Lower Yangzi, with a special focus on Shanghai–Pudong. But while South and Central China were shifting to market mechanisms, the North-East still depended on command planning, with a high proportion of its output of steel and machinery transferred out of the area at low prices to the state, and its enterprises subject to heavy taxes. Not thirty but fifty years of the prc’s planned economy was made to bear the cost of the twenty years of its market economy. By the early 1990s, some of the plants in Tiexi were already starting to decline, and by the end of the decade most of its factories had closed. In 2002, the 16th Congress of the ccp announced that market reforms would rejuvenate the North-East industrial region, transforming it into an area of high-tech, capital-intensive enterprises. But the central government is neither willing nor able to shoulder the investments necessary for such a change, hoping instead that foreign capital will step into the breach. The reality is that Chinese industrial development is heavily dependent on the import of capital goods, which now account for two-thirds of total investment in fixed assets. No ready solution to the plight of the North-East is in sight. The region’s oil and coal reserves are seriously depleted. In Liaoning Province alone the jobless number some 2.5 million; labour protests and street demonstrations have multiplied, as mass unemployment becomes an acute social problem.

It was into this scene that Wang Bing, a young film graduate in his early thirties who was a stranger to the area—he had visited Shenyang once in 1993, but knew no-one in the city—arrived in late 1999. He had never made a film before. Wandering around Tiexi in somewhat low spirits, he rented a small dv camera. A year and a half later, he had shot 300 hours of footage about the district. Out of this material he created a monumental trilogy. West of the Tracks is a documentary that runs for a total of nine hours, divided into three parts of descending length—4:3:2—whose English-language titles are ‘Rust’, ‘Remnants: Pretty Girl Street’ and ‘Rails’. It is without question the greatest work to have come out of the Chinese documentary movement, and must be ranked among the most extraordinary achievements of world cinema in the new century.

Its subject is epic—the dusk of an entire social world, together with all the hopes and ideals that created it. The fate of the industrial working class in what is widely believed to be an electronic age is a theme that has inspired films in many countries—France and Britain particularly come to mind—not to speak of the remarkable photography of Sebastião Salgado of Brazil. But no other such work has a power remotely comparable to West of the Tracks. Technically, the arrival of digital video, freeing the director for a one-man working style, allowed Wang Bing to complete his film in total independence, without obligation to studios, the state or any other institution. But what raises West of the Tracks to the level of great art is the use he has made of this emancipation. A generation younger than the pioneers of the new documentary movement in China, Wang Bing shares their concern with the lower depths of society. But he is consciously an heir of world cinema in a way they could not be. At film school, according to his own account, among the major influences on him were Pasolini, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Godard. The formal boldness and self-confidence of West of the Tracks comes out of this tradition. Structurally, the trilogy is an awesome composition, a modernist narrative conceived with calm and deliberation on the grandest scale. Visually, it has a painterly imagination and intensity equal to its architectonic ambition. In China it has taken us all by surprise, like a majestic being confronting us out of nowhere.