‘Youth’ Review: Look Inside Chinese Sweatshops Is Long, Sobering – and Occasionally Fun

This year’s Cannes Film Festival features an unusually robust selection of documentaries, two in the Main Competition alone, where nonfiction films almost never appear. And if the ones that have screened in the festival’s first three days have anything in common, it’s scale. These docs go big, go long and go deep.

The two that screened on Wednesday were Steve McQueen’s “Occupied City,” a four-hour tour of 130 different sites in that city, what happened there during World War II and what’s happening now; and Wim Wenders’ “Anselm,” which uses Wenders’ beloved 3D to create the enormous spaces in which German maximalist artist Anselm Kiefer creates his monumentally-scaled work.

Thursday brought another entry in Cannes’ massive-doc sweepstakes. Chinese director Wang Bing, who has two films in this year’s festival, is in the competition with “Youth,” a three-and-a-half hour look not at the carefree young people of his home country, but of the garment sweatshops where many of them toil. The film is as exhausting as it is disturbing, and it’s relentlessness is in many ways the whole point as viewers spend 212 minutes looking at circumstances in which these young people, most in their late teens and early twenties, spend their daily lives.

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“Youth” was filmed over five years in the Chinese city of Zhili, which is home to more than 18,000 workshops making children’s clothing. You’ll get that information in a single card at the beginning of the film’s end credits, but otherwise there is no background, no explanation, no context provided in this cinema vérité documentary that simply drops us into a number of these sweatshops and shows us the people who work and live there.

And the world of “Youth” is one with little separation between the workday and the rest of the day. In what appear to be nondescript and generally decrepit and hulking buildings, the bosses seem to occupy the ground floor, with the employees making clothes all day while sitting on wooden benches in front of sewing machines one or two floors up. Above that are the dorms where the workers live, sharing a bathroom and fetching water for bathing on some lower level.

Many of these buildings, according to the titles that occasionally tell us the location, are situated along Happiness Rd., an avenue whose name seems at best ironic and at worst a constant taunt. But “Youth” is not a chronicle of misery, though there’s plenty of that to go around; it’s more a chronicle of the lives that play out in these surroundings, and those lives can be as playful, as diverse and occasionally as joyful as lives anywhere else.

Wang’s cameras appear to have unfettered access: At one point a boss walks into the room and appears to make a beeline straight for the lens, but he turns away rather than blocking it or shutting it down. What plays out in front of those cameras is simply the conversations of late adolescents and young adults — which is to say, lots of jokes, lots of teasing and lots of flirtation.

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In fact, for long stretches of the movie its constant seems to be the relationships that may or may not be developing between young men and women who work alongside each other all day and live down the hall from each other at night. But there’s an amusing constant in these conversations, because by and large the men are more ardent, pursuing women who may be their friends but who draw the line at romance. “You’re too dumb,” explains one woman patiently. “I’ve been dumb since I got here,” says her prospective beau.

Inside the work rooms, the focus is entirely on speed, because the workers are paid by the item, not by the hour. One model might pay 18 yuan per coat, or about $2.50; another might bring 5.5 yuan, less than 80 cents — and they must all be produced under crushing deadlines.

“No way I can do it,” complains one young man of the workload.

“So what are you doing here?” asks a woman.

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“Going through the motions.”

But the workers want to be paid for going through those motions, and disputes over pay rates is the other common thread running through “Youth.” Time and again the people who make the clothes try to figure out how much they can ask for from bosses they know are underpaying them, and time and again management shoots down their requests or openly mocks them for daring to ask.

For a three-and-a-half hour documentary, “Youth” doesn’t cover a broad range of subjects or themes; instead, it settles down in a grim and squalid setting and covers a few things over and over. Wang drops you into these settings and keeps you there, which of course is entirely appropriate for a film about people who don’t really have the agency to leave without jeopardizing their livelihoods.

The film makes the point that people can still have fun in a setting defined by a kind of claustrophobic tedium — and at the same time, it makes the audience feel that tedium to the point where the movie’s first Cannes screening saw a small but steady trickle of viewers head for the exits around the two-hour mark. (Some of those people took a short break and then returned to the theater; most didn’t.)

Toward the end, the film does venture outside the sweatshops as one worker returns to his home province where little things — walking through grass in the rain, having windows in your bedroom — feel monumental. “Youth” doesn’t expect us to take this as a happy ending, but it at least lets viewers relax for a minute after a long and enlightening but sobering sit.

Wang’s other documentary in Cannes, by the way, is “Man in Black,” a film about the dissident Chinese composer Wang Xilin. It’s only 60 minutes long, a surprising touch of minimalism at a Cannes film festival that has so far specialized in maximalist docs.

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