Two Recent Documentaries about Young People in China: A Way Out (2017) and Present. Perfect. (2019)

Continuing my theme of films about China, these two are made in and about China by Chinese women, that elucidate certain aspects of Chinese society one imagines were not particularly pleasing to those in power in that country. It’s about young people and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them upon graduation.

出·路 Chu Lu (A Way Out, 2017) [China/Germany]

Filmed over a period of six years, this documentary follows three young people in modern China, each from different backgrounds, as they make their way in life. Two of them have grown up in relative poverty: one is a girl, Ma Baijuan 马百娟 (12 when we first see her), doing chores with her family and learning in a two-room school in a mountainous environment, far away from any cities; while Jia Xu 徐佳 is a 19-year-old boy who has taken the university entrance exam three times in order to get a place at a decent technical university, supported by his mother, who does multiple jobs to get him enough money to study. Then there’s Hanhan Yuan 袁晗寒, a rich upper-middle-class 18-year-old girl from a Beijing family who has dropped out of school and is just trying to figure out what to do in a vague, entitled way — she’s thinking about Europe, about travelling, about pursuing an artistic life. The film then skips ahead three years to see where they’ve ended up, and there’s a final shorter section another three years on. It’s fascinating, over the film’s running time, to see these markedly different visions of China (and Germany, briefly, for Hanhan), different places with quite different economic situations and geography. While young Baijuan is carrying hay along a winding path up a hillside, Jia is doing a series of soul-destroying call-centre jobs to get a foot in door of a competitive job market, and then we have Hanhan who is either taking her rabbit for a walk in Germany, or else interning in a Shanghai art gallery. The technology changes over the course of the film too, and the early grainier video images give way to a wider, brighter vista. The way the kids turn out, though, is clearly linked to their backgrounds and opportunities, revealing a very competitive environment for young people in China — a story repeated around the world, to a certain extent.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Qiong Zheng 郑琼; Cinematographer Wei Xing 魏星; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 April 2019.

A young Chinese woman works at a desk

完美現在時 Wan Mei Jin Xing Shi (Present. Perfect., 2019) [China/Hong Kong/USA]

I thought this film was fascinating, comprised of footage recorded from the internet (although artfully reproduced in black-and-white), of Chinese livestreaming sites, whose subjects (known as “anchors”) host a glimpse into their daily reality. One gets the sense that there was a huge amount of content to choose from, but the director has pared her film down to just a small number of anchors, who are less interested in performing or being wacky or flirtatious, and rather just want to find some company in an alienating world. And so there are a number of people with disabilities of disfigurements, or people who live in remote places with a tenuous connection to others (such as the young woman who must spend all her time working in a garment factory to support her child) and who have found this way of connecting online and maybe making a few extra yuan. The film’s four chapters hint at a structure which is never made explicit, but the anchors gradually start to recur as we see them in different settings, answering the (unseen) questions of their audiences, often interminably, and suggesting in a roundabout way their lives and experiences. In this way what is at least adjacent to a ‘found footage’ film becomes something rather poignant about marginalised lives in China.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Shengze Zhu 朱声仄; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.


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