- Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
After a monumental 20-year career of films with titles like Dead Souls (2018), West of the Tracks (2002), and Bitter Money (2016), Wang Bing’s latest has a positively lyrical ring: Youth (Spring). That might sound incongruous for a hefty documentary about migrant labourers in the Chinese garment manufacturing hub of Zhili. But it’s entirely appropriate to Wang’s bustling chronicle of young workers, recorded in a lively present tense, a contemporary contrast to his oral-history memory pieces but capturing history as it’s happening. Filmed over six years in buildings that house both workshops and dorms, it’s a portrait of a grind, yes, but also a testament to the irrepressible, earthy energy of the latest generation pressed into industrial service.
The cramped and cluttered workshops on screen look humble, more apartment-sized than factory-like. Rather than dwelling on scale or mechanisation, Wang’s camera responds to the human feistiness and foibles — and fatigue — of his fresh-faced subjects. People do toil away at sewing machines, clacking to the rhythm of blaring dance music, but more often, we’re watching university-age youngsters gossip and flirt, gripe and fight. One hothead runs his machine at breakneck speed, then leaps up to wrestle someone who may have thrown something at his head; cooler-tempered workers try to soothe the ruffled feathers. Another young man, a glutton for punishment, begs for the attention of a withering female co-worker. Wang’s ear for dialogue can lead to moments from some lost teenage comedy: “You’re dumb,” she says. He: “So? I’ve been dumb since I got here!”
Youth avoids the common documentary practice of featuring three or four people who are developed as “characters,” and instead looks at a number of workshops with occasional recurring threads within each. But his camera is no less focused, scrambling to follow someone racing up concrete stairs to the spartan bunk bed dorms, or to rubberneck on the messing about and horsing around that helps pass the time during 15-hour shifts. Very often it can be hard to tell whether it’s day or night, sitting in the windowless workshops, and when we do see the outside world, it might be a visit to an internet cafe, where the off-duty garment workers promptly fall asleep in front of screens. They work, too, for wages that seem Sisyphean in their rates, piecework of specific clothing templates commissioned in the thousands (one of them we hear identified as “the Mickey Mouse” design).
Wang makes sure to include discussions of wages, putting numbers to the efforts we see on screen (which other filmmakers sometimes shy away from). In the final third of the film, we witness attempts to organise and petition bosses for pay increases. These are met with the usual array of management pushbacks (browbeating, evasion, whining, threats) not dissimilar to what might occur in workplaces across the world, but the circumstances and the ages of most of the workers make their courage all the more impressive. An early sequence leaves no question about the asymmetric power between labour and management: the parents of a pregnant girl are told that an abortion would be doable and with a saline drip she could go right back to work soon enough. At another point, a young man in distress paces back and forth on a stark concrete terrace, bringing to mind the lives lost to suicide among the overworked and underpaid far from home.
In fact, the workshops depicted here aren’t regarded by Wang as the worst, and (according to the film’s press notes) might even offer some glimmers of hope because they operate outside the usual extensive state control and present potential opportunities for fair wages and small businesses. The director’s large-format approach (three and a half hours and change here) does nonetheless evoke a certain drudgery through sheer duration and the repetition inherent to work, even when the aim might be to show the fullness of experience. Still, Wang stays devoted to the measure of independence the workers seem to feel far from home, bringing things full circle by suddenly opening the film up to bold natural vistas as a few friends return to their hometown in the verdant countryside. “The plums aren’t ripe, and the peaches are still green,” someone observes, in what sounds like a line of poetry about youth.