Zeitgeist Films // 2008 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // June 26th, 2008
Bound By Tradition, In Search Of A Future.
Think of China and chances are you'll think of the Great Wall, the Olympic Games, Tiananmen Square, Tibet and the countries' human rights record. With the exception of the Great Wall, these are all highly contentious issues that have shaped the western world's view of China and, gradually, all make their presence felt in writer/director Sue Williams' Young and Restless in China; a captivating study of life in a rapidly changing country for nine young men and women. Filmed over a four-year period, Williams' film examines the contrasting fortunes of each of its subjects, while asking just how much China has really changed since its move from communism to capitalism; a transition each of these individuals has lived through.
Though Young and Restless in China rarely veers from the talking heads format that so often epitomizes this style of documentary, the film constantly grabs the viewers attention with the tales being recounted. Often moving, at times genuinely unsettling, the stories we are told gradually become darker, revealing that while China may be making great strides in the economic world, it still has far to go before outsiders will judge the country differently. A fine example of the problems facing modern China is dealt with in the story of Ben Wu. Returning to China, having been schooled in the USA, Ben Wu sets out to establish a chain of Internet Cafés. While the Ben Wu we meet at the outset is full of enthusiasm and vigour, attaining relative success quite quickly; our encounters with him a few years later reveal a man struggling to sustain or further his career, while maintaining his morals in a business world where bribery is apparently a day-to-day occurrence.
And while Young and Restless in China offers up two or three similar examples of underhand business dealings, it is the more personal stories that prove the most affecting. When we first meet Yang Haiyan, she talks of how she left her life in the city to work with her family in the rice fields. Eventually we learn of how her mother was kidnapped, some 18 years ago, and how Yang Haiyan has searched for her ever since. By some good fortune, or sheer coincidence, Yang Haiyan and her husband finally track down her mother during the filming of the documentary. The reunion is an emotional affair, but is soon overshadowed by the retelling of how her mother was kidnapped by human traffickers and sold into a life of slavery. Demonstrating a callous view on the value of human life, this tragic tale, perhaps somewhat fittingly, has a devastating denouement; one that will linger with the viewer, long after the final credits roll.
In fact, with perhaps only one real exception, Young and Restless in China is a collection of lives destroyed by a society where materialism is fast replacing idealism. The story of Wei Zhanyan beautifully demonstrates how the old values, combined with this newfound greed, are leaving behind a generation full of resentment for their country. Forced into work to cover the costs of her brothers' education; we first meet Wei Zhanyan as she moves into her own house, in reality a small one room hovel. Despite the lack of refinement, Wei Zhanyan speaks (quite rightly) with pride, about how she finally has her own home, free from her family and their ideals. But, as becomes commonplace in this documentary, optimism soon gives way to a crushing reality, as the factory Wei Zhanyan works at quickly ups her hours, leaving her with less and less free time; while she still earns a pittance, despite the 11-hour shifts.
Though Young and Restless in China spends much of its time dealing with people struggling to cope with the demands placed upon them by the Chinese way of life; there are two exceptions that stand out from the crowd. Zhang Jingjing, who was a student during the protests in Tiananmen Square, now works as a public-interests lawyer. Taking on the government on behalf of the downtrodden, Zhang Jingjing represents a growing voice of dissent in the country. Standing for what, morally at least, is right; Zhang Jingjing soon finds her efforts gaining unwanted attention from the authorities, revealing once again how some of the more reviled elements of the old China live on.
Zhang Jingjing's story also brings up a recurring theme, whereby the struggle between maintaining a challenging career and finding time to be with ones family comes to the fore. The small cracks that begin to appear as a result, representing real human tragedy.
Hope, finally, comes from the unlikeliest of sources, Wang Xiaolei; a wannabe rapper. Like most of the stories, the tale of Wang Xiaolei appears to be taking a downward spiral. Apparently making inroads to being the stereotypical "angry young man," thanks to a tough upbringing, Wang Xiaolei soon opens up to the camera, revealing a sensitive young man who finds solace in Hip-Hop. When a relationship with a young woman, whom he had met on the Internet, ends with heartbreak it appears to be the final straw for Wang Xiaolei. Yet, through sheer determination, this young man puts all his anger, frustration and venom into his music and finds real hope for a brighter future, in spite of the obstacles placed in his way.
The only real problem with Young and Restless in China is that, with nine people sharing the films' spotlight, the film lacks focus at times; something a smaller roster may well have prevented. All too often, Williams' film seems to be hammering home the same points, albeit from different sources. It's a small complaint, and though I'm sure Williams made this decision to add weight to the arguments being made; it does detract slightly from the experience, resulting in an all to frequent downward trajectory to the stories being told.
Minor faults aside, Young and Restless in China is a fascinating journey through a country quickly outpacing its populace, while doing very little to shake off the stigmas long attached to it. By turns depressing, hopeful, sad and profound; Young and Restless in China showcases the highs and lows of life in an ever-changing country.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Statement from writer/director/producer Sue Williams
* Official Site