You might struggle to shake the buzzing sound of industrial sewing machines after spending over three-and-a-half hours immersed in the world of this documentary from Wang Bing, the Chinese filmmaker known for his enquiring social and political films of epic length (this one’s a sprint compared to 2018’s eight-hour Dead Souls). For Youth (Spring) (the first part of an intended longer series), Wang filmed in Zhili City in Huzhou, Zhejiang province (about 100 miles from Shanghai) between 2014 and 2019. Zhili is an epicentre of kids clothes manufacturing sweatshops, a bubble of private enterprise that attracts tens of thousands of workers in their teens and twenties to live and work in terrible conditions in return for relatively attractive amounts of cash (wads, as we witness) but only if – and it’s a big if – they’re able to hit punishing piecework targets.
Wang’s film feels less like an exposé than an eye-opener; a portrait of a reality that feels almost otherworldly in its distance and difference. His camera moves around various scrappy factory floors and the messy dormitories that sit above them, most of them on a street called Happiness Road, if ever there was a name to raise an eyebrow. Wang plunges us into the noise, dirt and daily interactions of this world with the kind of intimacy that can surely only be achieved by spending an enormous amount of time getting to know and winning the trust of your subjects. (There are only a few moments when anyone acknowledges the cameras’ presence.)
It’s an overwhelming experience, tough to follow sometimes and never made easy for the viewer, although we’re never far from a fascinating moment or interaction, whether flirting, fighting or just dealing with an everyday work problem. And it’s impressive work: several times it’s hard to believe the scene hasn’t been sped up a little as we watch fingers and cloth dance around the angry sewing machines.
There’s no voiceover. Nor are there any sit-down interviews or attempts by Wang to introduce simple storylines. When characters are introduced with on-screen text – and we move through a lot of people – they’re always from a province far away. But talk of sex, possible marriage and, in one case, a mooted abortion, reminds us that whole lives are being shaped here. Futures are being forged right in front of us, and ‘Youth (Spring)’ is a rare window into a world of life and work that might be specific but has clear echoes in scenarios the world over.
Premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.