In China, they recycle plastic, but throwaway lives. It is the leading importer of plastic waste from the West, but education is a luxury dependent on factors like family income and geography. The savage inequalities of contemporary China are inescapably evident in the Shandong recycling plant, whose routines and travails are captured in Wang Jiu-liang’s Plastic China (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
What you discard might end up in Kun’s struggling recycling plant. The owner labors like a mule, but his employee Peng mostly comes across like a lazy drunk. Frankly, Peng’s ten-year-old daughter Yi-jie has a much greater work ethic. She seems to have assumed most of the family’s childcare duties to relieve her constantly pregnant mother, but also does her share of plastic sorting.
Both Kun and the audience can plainly see the responsible-beyond-her-years Yi-jie should be in school, but the useless Peng spends most of the family’s money on drink. Obviously, the idea of simply enrolling her in public school is completely foreign in this province. It would cost Peng a considerable tuition fee under the best of circumstances, but the fact they are ethnic Yi from Sichuan, without proper residency permits, presents further complications.
Wang’s previous documentary was the environmental horror show Beijing Besieged by Waste, so it would seem he has a perverse affinity for dumps and waste-processing facilities. However, Plastic is very much focused on its human subjects. Yi-jie quickly emerges as Wang’s focus, whom viewers will earnestly root for. She is a hard-working, sensitive kid, who deserves a future, but it is not clear she will have one.
While Wang’s approach is strictly observational, he clearly takes sides in the recycling plant’s conflicts. Of course, it is difficult to fault him for aligning with youthful innocence and virtue. On the other side of the spectrum, the myriad flaws of both Kun and Peng are mercilessly exposed for the audience to pass judgement on. Still, life is hard for everyone in Plastic—and it only gets harder. For extra, added irony, the hollow words of Chairman Mao constantly echo throughout the film.