Written, directed, and produced by Sue Williams and planned as the first “episode” of five documentary films over twenty years, Young & Restless in China records the lives of nine Chinese young adults over a four-year span (2004-2007). The result is an intimate, in-depth, nonjudgmental portrayal of the coming of age of a unique generation in the country’s fast-changing history.
Along the way, Williams follows a migrant worker on a reluctant trip back home to meet her potential husband arranged by her parents; accompanies a public interest lawyer to a rural area to investigate the villagers’ woes over environmental pollution; and walks through the overcrowded, messy hallway of a prestigious hospital in Beijing, hearing the patients’ begging for care and the doctor’s regret on his limited ability to treat patients without medical insurance. The protagonists come from diverse social backgrounds with various aspirations in life, yet all have to confront history’s unique gift not available to their parents and ancestors: choice.
For the generation growing up in today’s China, studying abroad, working and living in the city, or simply listening to hip-hop can provide transformative experiences, where a glimpse of the outer world will chart a young person’s future in unexpected ways. A striking example in the film involves two protagonists’ opposite reaction to the student protest of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Deciding that politics was dangerous and should be avoided at all costs, Xu Weimin left Beijing for the economic special zone Shenzhen, where he later started his hotel business. “I need something tangible, something I can build up every day,” he says. By contrast, Zhang Jingjing, a delicate-looking young woman, was so traumatized and inspired by the tragedy that she became a public interest lawyer advocating for basic rights of ordinary people, sometimes against the government.
In the film, Chinese life speaks to us in various voices, languages, and rhetorical styles. In an advertising department, people worry whether an all-red background will appear “leftist” and trigger memory of the Cultural Revolution; in a neighborhood committee meeting, the residents (which the film labels as “China’s increasingly vocal middle-class”) feel free to advocate for the law’s protection of their private property. In this mixture of voices and realities, the characters negotiate between traditional social roles and the desire for independence, between Westernized values and the bonds of their nation’s history. Sometimes language fails them, as if the sentiments they experience are yet to be invented in their native tongue. Wei Zhanyan, a migrant worker exceptionally articulate for her education, has to rely on “revolutionary” vocabulary to express her wish for independence. And for expressions like “I’m very ambitious” or “I will follow my heart,” some characters choose to say them in English.
Or they say it with music. The soundtrack of the film, a symphony of rock, hip hop and Chinese folk melodies with flute and pipa, communicates the heterogeneity of contemporary Chinese culture. One composer, Wang Xiaolei, is also a young and restless protagonist. His story is typical of a rock singer in the country: living on the margins of society and identifying with Western (in his case, African American) culture, pursuing independence and artistic achievement but at the same time unable to escape the general social pressure for economic success. Xiaolei, together with his music, also embodies the confusion and contradiction experienced by the whole generation. Although inspired by American artists, he bears tattoos of a mythical Chinese goddess and traditional Chinese characters on his body. Music gives him a sense of community and home, yet he uses it to vocalize a new sense of homelessness. Toward the end of the film, as an old neighborhood in Beijing is removed for the Olympics, we hear him singing “Your childhood memory / A place without street numbers.”
The realistic documentary starts with a poetic touch, with a lonely pair of skating boots zigzaging on the ice. It is a metaphor for the precarious balance between freedom and risk in today’s China, but the life recorded in the film is more often caught in turmoil and confusion. A question is raised time and again by the characters and the film itself: What is home, and where do we belong? And the characters seem unable to find an answer in the balance emphasized in their traditional culture. One finds spiritual belonging in Christianity, while some devote their energy to wealth and power.
Twenty years ago, River Elegy, a highly controversial TV documentary series in China, contrasted China’s land-based, self-contained, conservative culture to what it presented as the maritime, adventurous, open-minded West. Does the prevailing sense of uprootedness in Young & Restless indicate the demise of a traditional way of life? Is the economic boom changing the five-thousand-year-old civilization in some fundamental way? Is inequality and social schizophrenia a necessary price for the change? The film does not give any answers; nor do the members of the young and restless generation have time to ask these questions. They are still trying to figure it all out.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.