Cannes 2023 review: Youth (Spring) (Wang Bing)

“It gives Youth (Spring) a melancholic aftertaste that makes you wonder what the future seasons, both on film and in real life, will bring to them.”

Let’s not beat around the bush: watching a Wang Bing film is more often than not an endurance test, and the Chinese master of the very-longform documentary is certainly an acquired taste. To avoid festival programmers running for the hills his latest project Youth has been mercifully cut into three parts, of which the first one, titled Youth (Spring), is playing in Competition in Cannes this year, one of festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux’ boldest choices to date. Youth‘s first part takes a look at, as the title implies, China’s young generation in their late teens and early twenties, and their repetitive workdays in the sweatshops of Zhili City, China’s epicentre of clothing manufacturing. If you ever want to know where that new winter coat you bought your child came from, watch Youth (Spring); you will also learn a lot about the poor working conditions for China’s youth and how they deal with life, love, and long working hours.

Wang’s observational style throws you headfirst in between the sewing machines in one of Zhili City’s many factories, introducing the audience to the youngsters working there. They are each given a textual on-screen introduction, but you’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember their names; their faces are all you need. The film changes ‘cast’ a couple of times, but each group of factory workers engages in more or less the same sort of interactions, exactly the ones you would expect if you bunch a group of young men and women together in a small space. Banter, competitiveness, flirting, and fights, anything to break the monotony of the job. Most if not all of them are from outside the city, living in poor conditions in dormitories attached to the factories, only going home after long months of hard labour (the season in the title is there for a reason). As days turn into weeks and into months, the garbage on the galleries outside the workplaces and living quarters piles up, neatly visualized through Wang’s clever editing.

Despite the hardship of their jobs and their poor living conditions, these youth don’t seem unhappy in their lives, although they do not shy away from going up against their employer when it comes to wages. They are paid per completed garment, and the complexity of each design determines the amount they get paid for it. They have open discussions with their boss about raising these amounts, and he, though steadfast, doesn’t seem to be nonplussed by their demands. Yet outside this conflict the youngsters simply live their lives and don’t really give too much thought to their living standards. They are more interested in fun and in each other. Their wages and beating each other in the quantity of items they produce is all they care about. It is the optimism of the titular youth that strikes one the most in Youth (Spring).

Though Wang observes all of this as the proverbial fly on the wall, his subjects do recognize and interact with the ‘fly’ from time to time, leading to moments of comedy in an otherwise very austere film. The cinematography and framing are direct and everything you would expect a Wang Bing documentary to look like. There is the occasional diegetic piece of music to liven up the concrete boxes he films, be it techno beats or classic Chinese love songs, but most of the score is made up of the droning sounds of the sewing machines; their sounds will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. As will the impression made by the youth of the title and their perseverance and hope for a better future that undoubtedly will not come. It gives Youth (Spring) a melancholic aftertaste that makes you wonder what the future seasons, both on film and in real life, will bring to them.

(c) Image copyright: Gladys Glover / House On Fire / CS Production / ARTE France Cinéma / Les Films Fauves / Volya Films