By Yun-hua Chen.
The first installment of Wang Bing’s documentary triptych explores the textile industry in rural China and its young workers, aged 16 to 22, engrossed in intricate maneuvers for extended hours….”
Having premiered in Cannes and subsequently showcased at major film festivals including Viennale and IDFA, Youth (Spring) arrives as the first installment of Wang Bing’s triptych exploring the textile industry in Zhili, Zhejiang province, China. Following his previous work, 15 Hours (2017), a single-shot 15-hour documentary set in a Chinese garment processing facility, Youth (Spring) takes a distinct approach with a nuanced sense of time. The film results from Bing cherry-picking from thousands of hours of footage captured over five years, from 2014 to 2019. It chronicles numerous factories, each one resembling the next – all of them confined spaces filled with sewing machines and young workers, aged 16 to 22, hailing from rural areas, engrossed in intricate maneuvers for extended hours.
Wang Bing, a preeminent Chinese filmmaker dedicated to shedding light on those obscured by history or marginalized in society, has a unique lens for portraying individuals within their own environments. From Man in Black (2023) to Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018), Mrs. Fang (2017) and He Fengming (2007), he delves into single-person narratives resonating with entire generations. This chronicling reflects their living conditions, experiences in historical events, and the epochs they have traversed. Meanwhile, in works like the latest Youth (Spring) or earlier films such as Dead Souls (2018), Ta’ang (2016), ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), Coal Money (2009) and Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), he explores groups and communities, unveiling the rise and fall of industries and giving voice to stigmatized or marginalized individuals – whose existence is often buried by history or censorship.
While Wang Bing’s themes may be considered audacious given the context, his filmic language is grounded in the ordinary and the everyday, with a sense of communal existence and a gaze emanating from an equal vantage point. Possessing an unparalleled knack for seamlessly integrating into his surroundings and capturing the pivotal moments authentically, Wang Bing’s documentaries view from within. His films navigate the social, psychological, and philosophical realms without embellishing occurrences, steering clear of sensationalism and eschewing the inflation of mystery for theatrical effects.
Youth (Spring) embodies this tranquility and eye-level understanding. It presents an immersive journey into the lives of these young people, some as young as 16. Situated within a renowned hub for children’s clothing production, Wang Bing’s hand-held camera remains wordlessly with them in extended takes, the hum of sewing machines in the background, bathed in the yellowish light of incandescent bulbs. The camera fluidly moves only when the protagonists do, staying intimately close, constrained by the confines of the spaces of these family-operated factories. As with all of Wang Bing’s documentaries, the magic lies in the simple act of placing the audience alongside protagonists familiar with his presence, welcoming us into their daily lives and spontaneous moments.
Wang Bing constructs the film’s episodic structure through visits to various factories, highlighting the universality of their living conditions and the mundaneness of their daily life, all the while bearing witness to something deeply humane and relatable.”
While their hands tirelessly guide garments through sewing machines, these young individuals engage in banter, physical antics and occasional flirtation, sometimes navigating teenage pregnancy. In other moments that are less romantic and more bubbling with social justice awareness, they comment on the diminishing quality of fabric or negotiate piecework wages over decimals. Despite the stifling work environments, these youths remain upbeat. During their free time, these teenagers who migrated alone from the countryside form a community nap in local internet cafés, find solace in scrolling down TikTok videos, and plot romantic pursuits. Yet reality intrudes in a coming-of-age moment when a girl’s parents discuss the fate of a fetus with her employer, emphasizing the priority of delivering an order.
In this microcosm, it seems that all concerns in this late-stage capitalist machine, intertwined with Confucian and patriarchal social structure, are predominantly economic. Childbirth, marriages, parent-child relationships, employer-employee relationships are measured equally in monetary terms. Wang Bing refrains from pointing fingers and avoids projecting beyond the present moment. His focus lies in the burgeoning life and the unstoppable flow of energy that looks for any crack of joy and possibilities, which make life worth living. It is a celebration of life seeking moments of joy and possibilities, celebrating life’s worthiness. It is an ode of youthful energy, instinctive and raw in its joys and sorrows, in sharp contrast to the seemingly dilapidating surroundings – peeling dorm walls, unpaved muddy streets that collect rainwater, and outdoor concrete staircases.
Wang Bing constructs the film’s episodic structure through visits to various factories, highlighting the universality of their living conditions and the mundaneness of their daily life, all the while bearing witness to something deeply humane and relatable. The filmmaker’s keen observation reveals the seemingly homogenized workers, part of the mass production system, to be individuals with personal preferences and romantic entanglements. These individuals often have their uniqueness overlooked, much like the garments they handle, mass-produced yet lacking individuality.
The term “immersion” feels like an understatement. Wang Bing’s cinema possesses a transformative force, transporting us from the present while revealing the origins of our consumer existence through these vibrant lives. Youth embodies the spring of a lifetime; from their hands to our bodies, the vitality of their youth testifies to what propels the world forward, initiating cycles that commence and ultimately complete a circle.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).