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Youth (Spring) ★★★★



Director: Wang Bing

Released: Cannes Film Festival 2023

There’s something so hypnotic about Wang Bing’s three-and-a-half-hour-long documentary about workers in the Chinese garment industry that you barely feel the hefty runtime. Cannes really demanded dedication from its audiences this year with this and another documentary, Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, running to four hours and Martin Scorsese’s feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, clocking in at three hours, twenty-six minutes. For those prepared to stay the course, there were rewards with each.

Youth (Spring), as a documentary, was a rare selection in Competition which is usually reserved for feature films, but it’s not hard to see why it was chosen. The film runs and holds the attention like a scripted feature. It’s got a little of everything; action, romance, comic banter, pathos, slapstick, drama, suspense and great characters whose lives you want to follow.

Director Wang Bing, who spent five years making it, is not known as the master of observation for nothing. Little, if anything, escapes his gaze or his camera. The outbreak of a fight over a throwaway crude comment whispered romantic phone calls stealthily taken on a balcony, boardroom meetings discussing the personal mishaps of workers, pleading calls from a mother to a hot-headed son; all life is here in a factory setting.

The rhythm of human life is matched by the constant whirring of the sewing machines, which churn out the garments that will find their way into High Street stores in Western cities as bargains for those looking for something cheap and cheerful to wear a few times. But these disposable bargains don’t make themselves. Behind their prolific production are real people with the same hopes, dreams, problems and emotions as anyone else.

In this film, the focus is on the young people from villages along the Yangtze River coming to the city of Zhili, the textile capital of China, to make a modest, even pitiful living. Industrious and largely uncomplaining, they toil for long hours, tiny cogs in a big moneymaking wheel. They sleep in bare stone walled, ugly rooms above the factory floor set up as makeshift dormitories. In the evenings, they splash out some of their meagre wages on takeaway noodles and the occasional bit of fun. There’s a bustling city around them, but their stomping ground is the squalid unpaved streets where slum dwellers cheekily drop their rubbish from the top floor at night, hoping those downstairs won’t know where it came from.

Bing’s camera captures it all. Filmed from 2014 to 2019, three cameras followed a selection of young workers. They captured the intensity and monotony of the hard work of producing endless chains of hoodies, T-shirts and sweatpants for young people in rich countries to wear. But there’s more to Wang Bing’s film than recording factory workers hunched over machines. He captures the intricacies, demands, and joys of everyday, ordinary life among people thrown together by their need to survive. These young people are like young people anywhere; they want to dress and look fabulous, flirt, have sex, fall in love, make friends, gossip and, most of all, dream of a better future. There is also, movingly, pride and a certain amount of Competition in doing the job well.

Bing explored this world in 2016’s Ku Qian (Bitter Money). But it fascinates him because Youth (Spring) is part one of an intended trilogy extending to a nine-hour running time. It won’t be packing in the multiplexes on a Friday night, but as a festival watch, this was compelling stuff.

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