Opening at the Cinema Village in NYC on April 11th (by coincidence, the very fine “The Dhamma Brothers” reviewed below opens there the same day), “Young and Restless in China” is an eye-opening documentary about social change in China today. As the title implies, the subjects are all under 40 and generally dissatisfied with their life, despite enjoying lavish wealth in some cases. For those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, it might be a step up from the hard-scrabble existence on a rural farm into a factory, but at the expense of the community they once knew. In nearly every case, there is a feeling of loneliness even when they are in a marriage or relationship.
Directed by Sue Williams, the award-winning producer-director of “China: A Century in Revolution”, the documentary is very much influenced by Michael Apted’s series of films that track a group of British people from different social classes from the age of 21 into middle age. As is the case with Apted, there is a sense of melancholy about lives that don’t meet expectations.
Although the film includes no voice-over narration that would betray the intention of the director, it is clear that Williams was motivated to make the film from the standpoint of a social critic. It is to her distinction that she allows her subjects to make this point for themselves even when in some cases they thought that the point that were making was that they never had it so good.
In the final moments of the film, one of the more successful interviewees tries to describe the malaise facing China today. He says that China is like a poor child that never had money for candy, but one day wakes up to find $100 in his pocket. The child will go to the candy store and spend every penny on candy, stuffing his mouth until he is sick. Meanwhile, a rich kid who has been able to afford candy all his life will not overdo it. That’s the difference.
Here are capsule descriptions of 3 of the interviewees from the movie press notes:
Wang Xiaolei – Rapper
Xiaolei’s parents divorced when he was very young leaving him to live with his poverty stricken grandfather. As a young teenager, he spent his days hanging out on the street until he discovered hip-hop, a culture he immediately identified with. But while he is inspired by American artists, his lyrics reflect the world he knows best, the world he sees around him, his relationships and ancient Chinese myth. As he works on his rapping, he gets a job as a club DJ to earn enough money to eat. He falls in love with a girl on-line, sends her all his money to come meet him and is shattered when she doesn’t show up. Tired of being looked down upon because of his poverty, Wang decides to focus on being a successful rap artist and record label owner.
Zhang Jingjing – Public Interest Lawyer
By 2005, preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing are accelerating. As entire neighborhoods are mowed down and over 1.5 million residents displaced, Jingjing is representing over 1000 families in a suit against two city agencies over a massive electromagnetic power line built for the games. The families represent an increasingly vocal middle class, less afraid than previous generations to stand up for what they believe. Jingjing was in college during the student protests of 1989 in Tiananmen Square and, like many others, was forever marked by the tragedy. These demonstrations in which more than 100,000 protested against the Chinese Communist Party demanding freedom and democracy, ended in disaster as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army used force to suppress the students, resulting in thousands of injuries and, by various accounts, hundreds of deaths. These events inspired her to become a lawyer and devote her life to advocating on behalf of ordinary people.
Xu Weimin – Hotel Owner
Weimin was also in college during Tiananmen but he drew different conclusions, deciding that politics was dangerous and scary and to avoid it at all costs. Now in his late 30’s, he is starting to build a hotel from scratch – a business which he has no experience in. Like the other businessmen in the film, he struggles with the realities of starting a business in China – the difficulties of dealing with local officials and endemic corruption. His personal life is messy. With a wife and baby in Beijing, his two daughters and ex-wife in Shanghai and his hotel and parents in Shenzhen, Weimin tries to split his time between all three. On top of that, his mother’s health is failing and along with his sister, he must take care of her and pay all her medical bills.
For those who want to get a flavor of Sue Williams’ previous work, you can watch her PBS Frontline documentary “China in the Red” here.