At 178 Yimin Road in the manufacturing town of Zhili, located in China’s northern Zhejiang Province, 19-year-old Shengan is two months pregnant. Whether she and her 20-year-old boyfriend Zu Guo will have an abortion or a baby is partially decided by their manager as the couple spends most of their waking hours at his address. They are two of the thousands of young textile workers who have migrated from rural homes to spend 15-hour days in windowless rooms, rattling away on sewing machines to stitch mass-produced children’s clothes.
Almost entirely without comment, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing embeds with young workers at different sites, resulting in Youth (Spring), a three-and-a-half-hour documentary that could easily have been five hours, or 42, or perhaps a week. He filmed a total of 26,000 hours over five years and plans to release sequels. The narrative involves dropping into one workshop. Then another. And another. We are told via a closing title card that 18,000 such workshops are in Zhili. While this repetitious patterning succeeds in terms of mimicking the mode of the labor depicted, frustratingly, it anonymizes some of the workers introduced later on.
This is a shame as the personalities are the chief charm here, seeming to suggest that the perfume of youth spritzes even in the most starkly utilitarian environments. Fly-on-the-wall footage starts on the shop floor, where workers sing along to the radio and exchange good-natured barbs; they flirt and play fight and sometimes genuinely break into physical fights. Living on top of each other 24/7 means they have no breathing room to process volatile emotions, yet it also breeds a familial intimacy that makes these claustrophobic conditions bearable. The workers sleep together in flophouse dormitories, retiring for limited leisure hours to eat noodles, bathe feet, and play fight again, on one occasion weaponizing a large cream cake.
As the runtime lumbers on, the thematic focus shifts from interpersonal dynamics, featuring romantic negotiations galore, to job-related negotiations about pay between the workers and their disinterested, sometimes verbally abusive bosses. Monthly wages are calculated based on how many bundles of clothing have been sewn. In a livelihood determined by speed, hands move at sewing machines as if on fast-forward. The director’s strongest critical editorializing is in his chosen title, because in the workshops of Zhili, youth itself sped up. Although this restrained mode of filmmaking allows for nuanced observations and eschews artificial narrativizing, the impact of the film is dampened for the young workforce depicted, who have — once again — been subsumed by a machine so much larger than themselves.
Youth (Spring) is an official selection at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it screens through May 27.