Young & Restless in China thoughtfully depicts the lives of nine young adults living in China, and director Sue Williams uses unique access to give an honest assessment of a society in flux. The only drawback is that Williams doesn’t trust her own material enough in a couple of key ways.

Raised under communism but getting used to the capitalistic influences in their lives, the nine Gen-X’ers here include a factory worker, a farmer, a hip-hop artist, a medical resident, an environmental activist, a shirt manufacturer, and three other graduate students-cum-entrepreneurs.

While the film’s subjects face all kinds of challenges in their careers and the looming threat of interference by their government, most of them remain positive in spirit. Over the four years that Young & Restless in China was shot, we see both progress and setbacks for everyone. But these citizens are a practical lot and their dreams (for the most part) stay alive.

This intimate look at Chinese life today may alter some Western perceptions of a society usually portrayed as monolithic and mysterious. Williams brings an integrity to her case studies, showing the good and bad in their lives. Her film is nuanced and emotionally bittersweet—not nearly as propagandistic (in either direction) as some might expect.

Yet two formal strategies keep the documentary from becoming more powerful than it is: the often pat and redundant voice-over narration read by Ming Wen (of “ER” fame), and the English-dubbed translations of the Chinese people. In the latter case, Williams distances the viewer from the individuals onscreen—just the opposite effect from what she probably intended. One of the few times Williams uses traditional subtitles is during the hip-hop songs; otherwise the speakers lose some of their directness when we must listen to their American-sounding counterparts.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that the factory worker’s story is moving, but in no way does it capture the harrowing conditions of factory life for at least some (probably most) girls and young women as portrayed in last year’s documentary China Blue (shot mainly with hidden cameras). The suggestion in Young & Restless in China that factory work is somehow a “way out” for the destitute just doesn’t ring true next to this other recent film. Is it all possible that Williams was only allowed to see an official government-sanctioned version of the facts? Let’s hope not.

Response from the Filmmaker

I would like to thank Eric Monder for his review of my film. For the record, I would also like to comment on his last observation: “The suggestion in Young & Restless in China that factory work is somehow a 'way out' for the destitute just doesn’t ring true... Is it all possible that Williams was only allowed to see an official government-sanctioned version of the facts? Let’s hope not.”

First, no government official selected any person or any place we filmed. We chose all our characters and locations. We did have problems with access, as does any filmmaker worth their salt working in China. Wei Zhanyan, the factory worker to whom he refers, works for a South Korean-owned factory which, as we said in the narration, would not allow us to film inside. One can only suppose it was because of the bad conditions there.

However, I am surprised that Mr. Monder found the idea of factory work being a “way out” so troubling. Zhanyan sees it this way because she is realistic about what job she can expect to find with a 4th grade education: factory work is the only “way out” of the countryside for her and so many like her. It is why hundreds of millions of young people have left their homes to work in factories: these jobs allow them to earn cash, which they cannot do in their villages. And as we show in the film, Zhanyan becomes exhausted by the overtime, pressures and monotony of her work, feeling that she “lives like a machine.” The harsh reality is that, in China, the “way out” is often only the lesser of two bad choices.

I should add that, obviously, not all businesses treat their workers the same way. There are hundreds of thousands of factories in China, mostly privately owned, often by foreigners, and they treat their workers differently: some quite well, some poorly, some extremely badly. Recently however, many managers are finding that they have to treat their workers a bit better if they want to retain them because there is a labor shortage.

Sue Williams