It is somehow emblematic of modern China — at least of its seamier side, as frequently explored in director Wang Bing’s unsparing documentaries — that the street on which his long, oppressive new film “Youth (Spring)” takes place should be called “Happiness Road.” A collection of clothing manufacturing workshops, arranged like a mall around a rubble-strewn central thoroughfare 150 miles and a world away from Shanghai, this semi-derelict location is so poorly described by its name that one could suspect its planners of having a little joke. Except that here in Zhili City, irony — like leisure time, fresh air and natural light — is a luxury few can afford, least of all the teens and twentysomethings spending 15-hour workdays on site before retiring to equally rundown flophouse dormitories.
Scored only to the ceaseless rattle of sewing machines and the pop songs blasted through the studios at top volume, “Youth (Spring)” (the first instalment of a planned wider project to be culled from around 2,600 hours of footage) follows a dozen or so of the young people, mostly migrants from neighboring Anhui province, employed in these mini-factories. Their circumstances are harsh, their surroundings dystopian. The Happiness Road lot could easily be repurposed as the backdrop for a blockbuster sci-fi set in the aftermath of an extinction-level event. And yet much of the film is noisy with chatter, flirtations, in-jokes: a cheerfulness tempered by the suspicion that, like the pounding music, such banter exists largely as a distraction from the numbing daily grind.
Nineteen-year-old Shengnan has a good-natured tiff with her 20-year-old boyfriend Zu Guo, shouted across the fabric-strewn floor. It’s almost like a schoolyard spat — the interactions between the workers have a puppyish playground energy — until we realize that Shengnan is pregnant with Zu Guo’s baby and the problems they face are distinctly adult ones. Outside, on the cracked concrete stairwell, they discuss the options of aborting or keeping the baby, a decision hinging on the wishes and plans of their two families.
Wang’s strictly non-interventionist approach (occasional accidental acknowledgement of the camera aside) means we have only an incomplete picture of their dilemma, when, rather frustratingly, the focus switches to a co-worker. And so it shifts repeatedly, in roughly 20-minute cycles, suggesting Wang’s interest lies less in individuals that in the Zhili City workforce as a sociological phenomenon. It’s a valid intention, but a deflating, even dehumanizing, experience to touch on different lives, only to discover their similarly foreshortened prospects — like colored threads being woven into gray fabric. Ambitions are heartbreakingly modest: to earn a little more, to raise a child, maybe one day to open an identical workshop. Nobody in Zhili City seems able to dream of much beyond its crumbling confines, but maybe, like the young woman who heads to an internet cafe after work only to fall asleep at her keyboard, they’re simply too tired to dream.
Wang’s last documentary, 2018’s eight-hour opus “Dead Souls,” earned its arduous length by investigating a dramatic interlude in China’s history, providing devastating oral testimony of the horrors of Mao’s “re-education” camps. Returning to some of the concerns of 2016’s “Bitter Money,” by contrast, the 218-minute “Youth (Spring)” deals in a form of anti-drama, in which each new strand becomes a depressing reiteration of the struggles and stunted horizons of the last. Even the odd burst of youthful exuberance, such as a cream-cake food-fight in the dingy dorm, only serves to counterpoint the crushing sameness of these long work days otherwise.
Still, there is intermittent fascination in simply watching workers work. Zhili City is dedicated to the manufacture of children’s clothing, so hip young guys in leather jackets focus intently on hemming the scalloped edges of toddlers’ blouses. A 16-year-old girl snips away at a neverending bunting-strand of iron-on decals with mechanistic precision. And when good-looking, lively Xiao Wei settles in at his sewing machine, the footage appears sped up: his hands move so quickly they register as a blur. It’s hard not to wonder about — grieve a little for — the more wonderful things that such dexterity could produce if it weren’t being channeled into cheap, kid-sized fleece leggings.
Zhili City is a cluster of privately-owned businesses, and as such anomalous in the regular scheme of state-run industry. (Its self-governing Wild West vibe is what allowed Wang and his five other credited DPs such access over five years of on-off shooting). But while that gives rise to an atypical measure of freedom on the workfloor (the music, the fraternizing, the horseplay) and we do witness some face-to-face negotiations with shady bosses over pay, it is sad to see how little this relative independence otherwise benefits the worker stratum. “Youth (Spring)” uses the workshops of Zhili City to illustrate — again and again, to the point of dulling its impact — the desolate truth that in the lower echelons of China’s industrial sector, youth is not wasted on the young. It is methodically ripped from them, day by day, seam by seam, stitch by stitch.