Youth (Spring) arrives in the midst of something of an inflection point: The West’s orientation toward China has shifted radically since Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing’s last run of films, in the mid-2010s, and in light of that, the work will be received differently. Even more broadly, documentary cinema is in something of a state of crisis at the moment; it’s undoubtedly enjoying an elevated status, but also being swallowed into the gaping chasm of “content,” at one extreme, while at the other end of the commercial spectrum, many prominent filmmakers have been noticeably struggling to reconcile the contradictions at the heart of the medium in fresh and compelling ways. Back to the China side of things: after three fruitful decades, the vitality of the Chinese Independent Documentary movement (also known as Chinese New Documentary) has more or less dissipated, as State censorship’s tightening has restricted expression and international audiences have started to lose interest in a Chinese documentary ethos that isn’t vociferously anti-China. Wang’s celebrated peers and forebears, like Wu Wenguang and Zhao Liang, have largely fallen by the wayside, talent undiminished but directing less and receiving much reduced attention for that work than they did a decade or two ago. Youth (Spring), then, arrives in the throes of the highest profile international bow of any auteur from the Chinese New Documentary cohort in many years.
The salvo in a planned trilogy, Wang’s comeback is an observational portrait of the lives of young migratory workers in small garment factories near the medium sized city of Huzhou, in the relatively well-to-do eastern province of Zhejiang. It’s a familiar subject for Wang, who covered similar ground both substantively and geographically in 2016’s Bitter Money and 2017’s exhausting concept piece 15 Hours (an unflinching depiction of the monotony of factory sewing that’s as long as its title says). In Youth (Spring), we’re introduced to a set of teens and twentysomethings who take up residence in various decaying industrial towns; we see them live out near every aspect of their day-to-day lives, from the most detached and impersonal moments to the charged and intimate ones. Close friends make jokes with each other, awkward first encounters with prospective partners occur, long-term couples debate their futures, bitter fights erupt, and in aimless moments they wander the streets. Community is incubated among our cast through living conditions of cramped, privacy-devoid dormitories filled with their colleagues. Daily activities move the youths through the space of dilapidated buildings, down messy streets, onto public transportation, into internet cafes, to patronize street food vendor stalls, and of course, land them in the workplace. Work dominates the lives of our subjects, as it does the runtime of this three-and-a-half hour film. Endless, repetitive mechanical toil, repeated so incessantly as to become second nature, is drilled down into the very core instincts of these young people. So often have they repeated these tasks that some of the studied shots of workers operating the sewing machines showcase what approaches robotic dexterity, speed, and precision. We see workplace conflict and negotiation with employers; while only a rung or two up the societal pecking order, the floor managers hold all the cards, and the youths have only barefaced tenacity on their side.
The photography in Youth (Spring) is, as in other Wangs, handheld, opting for predictable meandering long takes. The camera is a character, acknowledged by those on screen; it responds to events in a way that illustrates the semi-participation of the documentarians (i.e., in scenes involving more abrasive behavior, the camera becomes sheepish and self-conscious about its act of intrusion). The setting is captured with geometrical directness in a way that obscures place, perhaps in an appeal to the universality of the lives depicted. The camera circles, round and round, through the same spaces, gradually building a sense of the textures of the subjects’ daily lives in shades of human interest and monotony. Duration tends to lend experiential weight to the more dreary and mundane observations. But Youth (Spring) also feels conceptually unmoored and fails to solve the fundamental editorial question of what gets in and what stays on the cutting room floor. The emotional highs feel distant, too; Wang grates against the limits of what a slow, observatory direct cinema can say. On balance, though, the film is still moving and deeply human — a depiction of ordinary people making the best of a hard lot in life, living in neither destitution nor with abundance. Finally, it ends with an ostensible teaser for what’s to come in the next installment of the trilogy: a handful of youths travel to their hometown village to gather for the Chinese New Year.
It’s worth taking stock of Wang’s journey to this moment in his career. His over-nine-hour debut feature, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), was a seminal moment for Chinese documentary culminating a decade of increasingly ambitious independent and outsider video works. With a unique visual language, one native to digital video, Wang created a revelatory encapsulation of a place, a social context, and a series of events completely alien to his viewers. He was an artist more than a documentarian, and West of the Tracks was immediately one of the greatest artworks of the new millennium. The rest of the decade saw Wang struggling to follow up this opus, in various ways — and to greatly varying degrees of success. Eventually, after his to-date only fictional feature, The Ditch (2010), Wang seemed to change tack. He resembled less a “great modern artist” than a figure at the vanguard of contemporary Chinese documentary as a genre, which flowered into a career renaissance for him as the decade progressed — aided, in part, by online file-sharing communities disseminating his works. As a documentarian, Wang still occasionally made vital films: Ta’ang and Dead Souls, in particular, cemented his witness to history. And then, a few years ago, came news of a highly anticipated feature following Nigerian immigrants to China, which has thus far failed to materialize, and is rumored to be subjected to the pressures of aforesaid censorship. In this context, Wang’s proper return with Youth (Spring) feels like more abdication: he’s retreating to the same subjects with no change in orientation, a softer sociopolitical touch, and less rigorous conceptual and aesthetic scaffolds. The hard, expressive DV-native visual language of his earlier works has completed its long transformation into nondescript amorphous HD. The likelihood of this abdication is buttressed further by his reported humble amazement at his inclusion among this year’s competition slate. Wang simply isn’t China’s leading documentarian anymore, just as he abandoned his claim to high artistry. But one hopes that isn’t permanent.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.