It is easy for those who are no longer young—or at least no longer as young as they once were—to look at youths with a mixture of pity and protectiveness. The young people who toil in the textile workshops featured in Wang Bing’s new documentary, Youth (Spring), certainly invite such a reaction from the comparatively wealthy audiences of Cannes or the New York Film Festival: As economic migrants working in the children’s clothing production center of Zhili City, just outside of Shanghai, Wang’s subjects spend 15-hour days behind buzzing sewing machines, exhausting the last days of their girlhoods and boyhoods.
But Wang’s ambitions in this first part of a planned Zhili trilogy seem greater than just reminding Western audiences of the human cost behind the bargains on Shein. In fact, for a film that spends its three-and-a-half hour runtime almost entirely within the walls of charmless workshops and even more charmless dormitories—often on two floors of the very same building—Youth (Spring) is only glancingly interested in the work itself. Far more of its focus is centered on the lives of the laborers: those who are identified range in age from 16 to 34, but most are in their early twenties, those awkward years between adolescence and adulthood.
Unlike the strictly structured, state-run textile sweatshops with whose reputation the West is more familiar, the children’s clothing workshops in Zhili are small and privately run, which granted Wang the opportunity to film within them for five years—amassing a reported 2,600 hours of footage—and allowed the youths to show their true selves. Those that Wang follows divide their downtime between kid’s games and grown-up decisions, at one moment roughhousing, blasting Pitbull, inhaling instant noodles, flirting, or zoning out on their phones, and at the next negotiating the terms of a marriage, weighing the decision to have an abortion, or bargaining for better wages with their churlish bosses.
It can be heartbreaking to see youth wasted on pointless, dangerous, robotic hours of hard labor; Wang’s documentaries (including West of the Tracks, 2003; 'Til Madness Do Us Part, 2013; and Bitter Money, 2016) often have such a streak of desperation and despair. But that’s the thing about youth, too: they snub our pity. The whole world is still just beginning for them; behind every serger machine, dreams await.
Youth (Spring) screens Saturday at 1PM and Sunday at 3:45PM at the Roxie.
Youth (Spring) screens tonight and tomorrow, October 1 and 2, as well as on October 6, at the New York Film Festival, its U.S. premiere. The screenings will be followed by conversations with director Wang Bing.