Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Icarus Films

At three and a half hours, Chinese director Wang Bing’s documentary “Youth (Spring)” is a marathon, one worth the time and effort. As with Frederick Wiseman’s lengthy studies of institutions and communities, the accumulation of the lived experiences so palpably on display requires sustained immersion that a shorter snapshot would not provide.

Only a documentary of this length can this fully capture the enervating days and nights of the circumstances for individuals involved in the textile manufacturing industry in China. Shot over five years, from 2014 to 2019, “Youth” takes place entirely in Zhili, a district of Huzhou City in Zhejiang province, one hundred twenty miles from Shanghai but a world away. There, according to closing film titles, eighteen thousand privately-run workshops produce primarily children’s clothes for the domestic and export markets. Approximately three hundred thousand migrant workers are employed, chiefly from rural provinces along the Yangtze River.

Workers include teenagers, though most are in their twenties, and a smaller percentage in their thirties. Separated by sex, men and women live in cramped dormitories with shared sleeping, cooking, and toilet areas. Balconies in the concrete buildings are littered with scraps and discarded clutter. At work and away, they tease each other, flirt, argue, bicker, and even fight among themselves. Nevertheless, with commitment to camaraderie, some cooperate among themselves in an attempt to negotiate with bosses for miniscule increases to paltry wages for piecemeal work. Only occasionally do they have time to celebrate.

With nonintrusive, fly-on-the-wall camerawork, the film unfolds without voiceover narration. The only music is that played in the factory or dormitories by the workers. All these young men and women display impressive dexterity with sewing machines, and they worry about their families and their futures. In other words, the workers here share many characteristics of all youth, except that their situation puts them in dead-end jobs with no benefits and what looks like exploitation, working machines like machines. The title “Youth (Spring),” synonyms in Mandarin, pinpoints the youth here, full of life but with a promise of spring withheld at every juncture. In Mandarin with English subtitles, “Youth (Spring)” screens at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Sunday, January 21, at 6:00 p.m. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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