With the controversial Beijing Olympics just around the corner, the eyes of the world continue to attentively watch the rapid and profound changes taking place in the social, cultural, and environmental life of China, currently staking a claim as the global market’s most powerful economy. “Young & Restless in China,” a documentary in the vein of the ongoing “Up” series, examines how these radical transformations are affecting the latest Chinese citizens to enter the workforce, a dislocated and confused generation of young people awkwardly caught in the move from, as director Sue Williams puts forth, “idealism to materialism.” It’s a shift directly influenced by the political and economic reforms that have turned strict, repressive communism into destabilizing, still repressive quasi-capitalism, and Williams gets close to a wide range of subjects who illumine the challenges now facing this generation and the future of China.
The film follows a bevy of men and women representing a diverse cross-section of socioeconomic strata: a couple of businessmen returning from abroad to take advantage of the country’s booming technological and retail industries; two female migrant workers contending with the demands of tedious, low-paying manual labor and rural China’s unequal prospects for women; a rapper from the slums using hip-hop to express the anger and disenfranchisement of the underclass; a public-interest lawyer helping impoverished and middle-class villages sue corporations for environmental negligence; a former participant in the student movement of the late Eighties now in the hotel business; a doctor with Western training who must compromisingly work within a strained and chaotic medical system; and a mutual fund manager with a crisis of conscience over corrupt practices in the investment trade and the condescending treatment of women in the workplace.
Williams checks in on the sampling’s individuals each year from 2004 to 2007, and plans to keep doing so until 2024 for follow-up installments. It’s an ambitious project, but one not beyond the grasp of someone who’s been directing documentaries about China since 1989. “Young & Restless in China” displays remarkable compassion toward its subjects, all of whom feel comfortable enough in front of the camera to express their hopes, concerns, and resentments. The same level of understanding extends toward very different subjects: on one hand there’s someone like Ben Wu, a so-called “returning turtle” who attended business school in America and now works full time as both a consultant and an entrepreneur attempting to create a Starbucks-like franchise of Internet cafes; on the other there’s Wei Zhanyan, a dropout forced to work to make money for her brother’s education as a headset wirer paid 40 cents per hour at a factory with 11 hour days.
Wu is separated from his family, often forcing him to evaluate his priorities, and must struggle with the ethical dilemma of rampant bribery that routinely greases the wheels of business in China; Zhanyan fights for her independence against a family that wishes to place her in an arranged marriage and begins a relationship with a chosen boyfriend even as she spends most of her life grinded down by tedious factory labor. All very different problems, resulting from a speeding economy with no time to slow down for those with moral or social hesitations.
Though Williams captures lawyer Zhang Jingjing and medical resident Zhang Yao’s experiences within bureaucratic systems that short shrift the downtrodden (70% of China’s population, for example, is uninsured), and rural housewife Yang Haiyan’s reunion with her mother who was kidnapped and sold to another family, there’s not a lot of action in “Young & Restless.” The majority of the film is composed of candid interviews and day-to-day work. It may not make for the most immediately arresting visual material, but with her sights set on a twenty-year sociological study about a country with as many contradictions as people, it doesn’t have to be.