Caitlin Quinlan


Youth – first-look review

The Chinese master of slow cinema covers life in some of the country's 18,000 garment factories in this sprawling but focused documentary.

In the films of Chinese director Wang Bing, pace, or more precisely slowness, is perhaps his most noted formal device. Wang takes his time; he follows communities for several years, filming the repetitions of their lives, the mundanities, the traumas, and condenses his findings into 200+ minute documentaries that, though sparse, lay bare some of the harshest truths about China’s past and present.

Yet it’s the notion of speed that is perhaps most interesting in Wang’s first film for five years, and the first documentary to compete for the Palme d’Or since 2004. Broad in scope yet brilliantly incisive, Youth (Spring) acts almost as a sequel to Wang’s 2016 film Bitter Money in its focus on multiple textile workshops and their labourers in the outskirts of a major Chinese city. Several times during the film, workers remark on how quickly someone is capable of doing something — stitching seams together, counting money, even leaping across furniture. These skills and the spaces in which they are enacted are integral to the film’s landscape; the workers ensure they can sew as fast as possible to ensure job security and to command higher paychecks, hoping to eventually leave the dilapidated dormitories where they live. Wang roams the corridors and balconies of the workshops and the living quarters with his camera (slowly himself, of course) to capture the rhythms of this way of life in the mode of pure, unobstructed observation that has come to define his work.

Most of his cast, as the title suggests, are young people between the ages of 17 and 25 who have moved from their rural homes to work in the urban environment. They’ve experienced their own unbalanced sense of pace in life, forced to enter a challenging adulthood and mature far quicker than they might like to. The relentless churn of their workload is undeniable; life speeds away from them with every bundle of fabric they cut, sew and trim, as tufts of material float through the air above their heads. In allowing such time to watch and consider this existence, Wang seems to slow the world down for them in a gesture of grace. Yet, unlike some of his other films where moments of levity are hard to find, Youth is soundtracked by the C-pop they blast during working hours and the near constant laughter of the employees as they flirt and play fight all day. The emphasis placed on their romantic connections, too, creates space for a softer tone. 

Still, there is no attempt to mask the sheer toil of the workers and one particularly striking scene that documents an aggressive fight between two employees is an abrupt reminder of the tension and stress that imbues this environment. There are conversations about break-ups and abortions, signs that the money is simply not there to do what many of them desire like raising a family or buying a house. The most invigorating of the film’s focuses is the collective organising between workers that occurs in several of the factories as they demand better wages from their bosses. Yet here there is a whiplash, too, as siloes emerge and individuals negotiate better deals for themselves, leaving others behind.

Wang remains a dedicated documentarian and though the duration of his work can seem a challenge, it allows for such immersion into a subject, such richness in portraiture. Operating outside of China’s film industry allows his filmmaking to be politically subversive even as he prefers to limit his own presence and foreground the realities of others. In this way, he continues to craft compelling ethnographies of his country through the voices and labour of its people, and the simple act of watching.

Published 19 May 2023

Tags: Wang Bing

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