Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Young & Restless in China

7-Up has come to China—the documentary concept, not the drink. In the spirit of Michael Apted’s 7-Up series, Sue Williams’s Young & Restless in China is the first installment of a projected five film documentary series, which will follow the lives of nine diverse Chinese Gen X’er’s and Y’er’s over four year intervals. The initial film, Young & Restless (trailer here), opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.

Olympic construction literally looms over the events of the lives average Chinese citizens, the consequences of which are decidedly mixed. Several of Restless’ main characters, like entrepreneurs Lu Dong and Ben Wu are returning expats looking for a piece of the action in China’s go-go economy. Others, like migrant worker Wei Zhanyan, seek more modest opportunities. While there is money to be made in China, Restless shines a light on some pretty severe quality challenges to the quality of life.

One character who deals directly with these issues is Zhang Jingjing, a lawyer who routinely takes on state enterprises in her cases, many of which are quite telling. We first meet her representing middle class neighbors challenging an environmentally suspect power line erected for the games. Restless shows us the middle class is growing economically, but their influence with the state does not seem to be increasing accordingly. One client complains: “We’ve become property owners. As citizens, the state should protect our private property.”

Given the nature of her fights, Jingjng appears to be in for a tough time. She is a product of the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations and seems to be the most directly affected by that event among those Restless follows. Others characters appear completely apolitical, like aspiring rapper Wang Xiaolei. Hand-to-mouth finances inform his hip-hop more than political issues. Music plays an important role in the film, often using Xiaolei’s raps, which are actually not terrible. (We even see a brief scene inside a jazz club, but we do not hear enough to make a judgment regarding the combo.)

Perhaps the most serious storyline involves housewife and migrant worker Yang Haiyan’s attempts to bring home her mother, who was lured into white slavery and sold to a farmer. She is hardly alone. The U.S. State Department estimates there are 10,000-20,000 such victims annually. Probably the most unexpected character arc is represented aspiring tycoon Lu Dong’s unexpected conversion to Christianity.

However, of all the characters the audience meets, Wei Zhanyan is easily the strongest rooting interest. We see her working eleven hours days, seven days a week, in a sweatshop-like factory to support an ungrateful family. Yet she carves out a small measure of independence and rebels against the arranged marriage pushed by her father. One really hopes things will work out for her over the course of the film and series.

Restless is incomplete by design. The story arcs do not have tidy conclusions, because life cannot be broken down into discrete four year periods. While the entire cast is not of uniformly equal interest, several of the leads are extremely compelling and will easily justify further viewer investment in the projected series.

While most effective on the personal level, Restless is also quite topical, complimenting recent press coverage of the Olympic torch relay protests by exposing the very real human domestic costs of the Beijing games. It opens Friday in New York Friday at the Cinema Village and in LA at the Laemmle. It is a promising start to what could be a very valuable documentary series.