Wang Bing's documentary "Youth (Spring)" is another addition to his collection of lengthy films, though it's concise compared to his 15-hour work "15 Hours." This three-hour-plus film delves into the world of garment manufacturing in Zhili City, focusing on two children's clothing workshops. The film’s setting, one located on Happiness Road, and its title, carry a sense of irony, considering the grueling reality depicted.
Unlike "15 Hours," which captured continuous activity in a garment factory, "Youth (Spring)" adopts a more dynamic approach. The shots, mostly static, shift before they feel too drawn out, and new characters are introduced even hours into the film. The workers, predominantly young, with the eldest being 32-year-old Xiang Xiang, are the central figures of the documentary.
The film opens with light-hearted conversations and a stitching competition, gradually blending the workers' day jobs with their night lives in stark, unadorned dorms. The bleak external environment, characterized by gray skies and littered streets, reflects their monotonous and exhausting routine.
Early on, viewers might grasp at narrative strands – like the story of worker Li Shengnan, who is pregnant with a fellow worker's child – only to realize that closure or follow-through is not guaranteed. Wang's style doesn't flit between stories but rather accumulates moments and recurring conflicts, particularly regarding wages, to immerse the viewer in the workers' repetitive and exhausting reality.
The supposed leisure time offers no true respite. One striking scene involves a young woman in an Internet café, receiving unsolicited advice about her late hours being detrimental to her skin, eventually falling asleep out of exhaustion.
Even authority figures, like a workshop manager who scolds workers, remain unnamed, emphasizing the dehumanizing aspect of the labor hierarchy where everyone, including the bosses, seems replaceable.
Wang intentionally avoids traditional narrative structures, opting instead to gather individual moments that cumulatively paint a picture of the workers’ lives. This approach challenges viewers to engage with the documentary’s disheartening content and question whether this sense of disillusionment is the core of Wang's message.
The film's visual style eschews conventional aesthetics. For instance, a heated argument between Li Shengnan and her father is filmed through a clothesline, partially obscuring them, heightening the sense of intrusion into their private lives. This method contrasts sharply with the more intimate approach of American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, known for closer framing and thematic construction in his works.
"Youth (Spring)" lacks a traditional narrative arc or a definitive conclusion. It bookends with scenes that portray a relentless, hellish existence and the ways in which the workers come to terms with it. In its unrelenting realism and absence of a clear resolution, the film challenges viewers to confront the stark realities of the characters it portrays, leaving a lasting impression of their enduring plight.