Directed by Wang Bing
Much of this documentary takes place in houses admitting hardly enough light to illuminate the contours of their interiors, though the inhabitants’ faces regularly reflect the small fire pit’s glow or the beam of overcast sunlight streaming in through the open door. Wang (returning to the doc form after his first fiction feature, The Ditch) builds his vérité family portrait out by observing his subjects’ bearing as they go about their ceaseless chores. The title's siblings—Yingying, 10, Zhenzhen, 6, and Fenfen, 4—live with their grandfather and frequently pass time at their aunt’s. (Their mother abandoned them, and their father's off working in an unspecified city.) By necessity, then, the girls are close. They amble together through the surrounding landscape, a wide-open stretch of Yunnan mountains, on various errands (herding sheep, gathering pinecones, etc.). Early on we see Yingying carefully prying lice from her little sisters’ hair in the middle of a foggy pasture; later, Fenfen sits patiently by as Yingying copies out her workbook lessons, their aunt’s TV blaring in the background.
This makeshift family’s already-meager form of subsistence living appears increasingly less viable as Wang follows them through the 2010 calendar year. The girls’ father returns home to collect Zhenzhen and Fenfen and bring them to the city, leaving Yingying to help her grandfather around the house. Three Sisters includes footage of the younger sisters’ mountain-road bus ride out of town, but otherwise stays back with Yingying as she stares into space at home and trudges along the step-farmed hillsides collecting dung, tentatively crossing paths with an acquaintance from school—a sequence that unfolds to the sound of the wind buffeting the mic. Soon after, she accompanies her grandfather to the local autumn feast, where the villagers’ after-dinner talk comes around to the escalating health-insurance fees and promised structural improvements of the government’s “rural revival.” The house is shrouded in shadows, not unlike the one that Yingying calls home, but the firelight illuminates the concern in their faces—they can’t afford to continue this way of life, nor can they afford to leave it behind.
Opens May 10