Speaking about his underseen 1970 film British Sounds, Jean-Luc Godard said it was important that the bourgeois heard oppressive factory noise the working class must endure every day. This made me think of a job I had right after graduating university nearly a decade ago. Not wanting to leave Montreal for personal reasons, but limited in work opportunities due to my lack of French, I––in desperation––took work at a warehouse assembling light fixtures. Lasting from the middle of 2014 to the early months of 2015, my overwhelming memories of that time (beyond its general misery) are the sounds. In particular the radio which was on all day, as fellow workers and I weren’t allowed to listen to anything with headphones or earbuds. Working an eight-hour shift and finding out that Top 40 radio does, in fact, just play practically the same 9 or 10 songs over and over––thus hearing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or (God forbid) Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” four times a day, five days a week over the span of months––a mini-despair gradually formed in my soul. Though I could maybe make an exception for my one guilty pleasure amidst that crop: Nick Jonas’ “Jealous.”
Anyway, on to Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring), the first of a supposed trilogy shot from 2014 to 2019 chronicling Millennial and Gen Z (consciously always listing the age when onscreen text introduces a new character) China. And judging by the three-and-a-half-hour runtime, it seems like many of them are toiling away in factory settings where pop music blasting off iPhone speakers or the radio (including a Pitbull song I Shazam’d) intersects in the sonic landscape with the running of the machines. Yes, in Godard’s fashion we have to endure the sounds, but Wang Bing’s mission statement is very different. After all, what’s eternally moving about the veteran documentarian is his deep earnestness.
As the song goes, “They say the children are our future.” In Zihili, a town dedicated specifically to China’s textile industry, we follow dozens of subjects working 15-hour work days, essentially little room in their life for anything other than the monotony of their jobs. When not in the factory rooms, we see the shared living situation in decrepit looking-housing. Maybe there’s not much space for beauty, yet there’s still a thrill from the trademark jerky camera movements that follow Wang Bing’s subjects. His often muddy-but-striking images always figure out a way to compose bodies somewhere between ultra-realism and painterly precision. Likewise, I always have difficulty suspending my disbelief for the depiction of laughter and joy in cinema; something that always rings false. But it means something seeing many of these kids playing pranks on each other and chortling: a genuine release.
Yet above all is the belief from Wang Bing that what you’re seeing is genuinely important. In fact, in a mea culpa of sorts five years later, this writer feels a little bad for not being more taken by his recent eight-hour opus Dead Souls and will admit to being wrong giving it an unenthused B- score. It’s, in fact, odd seeing some critics treat this particular work as the most oppressive film they’ve ever seen (likely due to its surprising placement in Cannes competition) when more of the runtime is dedicated to a labor dispute than, say, long takes of people assembling coats. With the young workers uniting for higher wages and more time off against brutal bosses (which inevitably still exist under the CCP), some hope for a better future emerges. This is something that’ll likely be elaborated on in the future installments. But in meantime, how can you not be moved by the simple gesture of this very film?
Youth (Spring) screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.