Charlie Chaplin’s frantic production-line factory worker in Modern Times is a ghostly presence in this giant, immersive documentary from Chinese director Wang Bing, the movie equivalent of a wall-sized tapestry; it is about the sweatshop capital of China, the northern town of Zhili in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, known as the “city of children’s clothing”. Thousands of workshops turn out mountains of cheap garments and every year vast numbers of young people from about 16 to 22 come from outlying cities to do a season of brutally hard work in return for cash in hand.
This is China’s hop picking or kibbutzim, the young workers often staying in the grim dorms the bosses offer rent free to justify low pay. There are bricks of cash to be seen in this film, no question of internet bank transfers and perhaps the whole thing happens without the involvement of the tax collector.
Wang has already made a similar film about migrant factory workers called Bitter Money, and there are some spectacularly grim vistas in Youth: the main street of Zhili is a brutalist concrete avenue which eerily extends to the far horizon like something from a sci-fi movie (or perhaps something by Roy Andersson). The dorms themselves are squalid and cramped. But the first thing that strikes you about the workers is their energy, verve, humour and their hopefulness. Their “youth”, as in the film’s title, is not ironic: they are not, as I suspected they might be, prematurely aged by work (although the incessant wrangling about piecemeal rates of pay is clearly taking its toll by the end).
Wang shows them laughing, bantering, flirting, play-fighting and then, in one hair-raising scene, real fighting; one guy throws a spool pin from a sewing machine at someone’s head and the ensuing scrap has to be broken up. There are heart-stopping stories of emotional drama: a young female worker has become pregnant and tense negotiations take place between the hard-faced boss and her parents. One chief says heartlessly: “Abortion is not so bad; it’s like getting bitten by a dog and then you bite back.”
The sound that reverberates through the film is that of the electric sewing machine: the incessant teeth-grinding znnnnn-znnnnn-znnnnn as pieces of cloth are stitched together against the clock. There do not appear to be issues of safety as such – people do not get their fingers sliced open by the sewing machines – but the continuous agony comes from thinking about money. The workers are always tensely talking among themselves about how much they are getting paid for a garment. Should they get more? Are other workshops paying more for the same work? Will making a fuss spoil quite a lucrative temporary gig?
And the film shows the biggest question of all: should they team up to confront the boss? Almost in real time, we can see the beginnings of what could be a trade union movement in Zhili. It’s possible to be slightly overwhelmed by the scale and the social realist detail of the film, which was shot over a five-year period from 2014 to 2019, but the hope and idealism of the young workers is moving.
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