Young Chinese textile workers goof off while on the job in "Youth (Spring)."

Two New Documentaries Take Us Behind the Scenes in China

Filmmaker virtuoso Wang Bing premiered his latest—one about garment workers, the other about a legendary composer—at the New York Film Festival

Young Chinese textile workers goof off while on the job in "Youth (Spring)."

Courtesy of Icarus Films

This year’s global film festival scene played host to two intriguing Chinese documentaries, which, when placed side by side, could not be more different. Youth (Spring) is a three-and-a-half-hour observational piece about dozens of young Chinese garment laborers, shot as though it were a casual, impromptu hangout. Man In Black, which runs only an hour, is an interview with a classical Chinese composer, filmed with careful lighting composition and meticulous camera movement. But the two documentaries have something vital in common: their director, Wang Bing, who uses these divergent approaches to tell people’s most intimate stories by capturing something fundamental about their physical form.

Wang is known for his formidable runtimes. His 2002 debut, the Chinese metal worker chronicle Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, was nine hours long. Crude Oil, which follows the daily routine of oil field workers in the Gobi Desert, runs a staggering 14 hours, while a film he made in one take about garment workers was titled 15 Hours—no prizes for guessing its length. In comparison, the 215-minute Youth (Spring) is practically a short film, but as you might have gauged, what these works have in common other than their gargantuan runtimes is their focus on the lives of the modern Chinese workforce. In fact, 15 Hours and Youth (Spring) are the second and third entries in a garment factory trilogy of sorts, which began with 2016’s two-and-a-half-hour Bitter Money, a film that focused similarly on young domestic migrants who travel vast distances for factory jobs with meager pay.

Youth (Spring) was born of a five-year stint during which Wang practically lived among the workforce in several textile factories in Zhili, a town outside Shanghai. However, it also proves to be particularly accessible and absorbing in the grand scheme of his oeuvre. It’s a far cry from the image most western viewers might have of “Chinese sweatshops,” which tend to come up in conversations about labor that usually aren’t about these laborers themselves—rather, they’re about American jobs and productivity, or about the specter of China as an exploitative modern superpower coming for the United States' top spot. In either case, the Chinese textile worker is a mere cudgel or dehumanized crutch.

Wang’s concern, in this global context, is re-humanization. In Youth (Spring), he achieves this through lengthy scenes of casual workplace conversations, which explore the inner lives of the teens and 20-somethings at Zhili factories and dormitories by capturing them in group settings, whether hunched over their sewing machines as they gossip, or huddled over smartphones as they show each other viral videos. The camera takes detours into the workers’ fights and arguments, their flirtations and secrets, and most often, their idle chatter. Every so often, the film leaves one factory and chooses another as its temporary setting—usually on Happiness Road, whose name can’t help but feel ironic given the poverty wages involved—adding to the sense of transience of these spaces, as locations which migrants pass through to make some cash during months-long summer stints. As soon as we get to know a handful of them—their voices, their interests, their body language—the camera leaves them behind.

Two young Chinese textile workers in "Youth (Spring)."

Courtesy of Pyramide Films

Since his movies frequent European and other global film festivals, this concern of the western viewpoint would undoubtedly have crept up during Wang’s five-year process. However, its primary concern isn’t necessarily external; even its title, Youth (Spring), is far more poetic in its original Chinese: Qing Chun (Chun). It makes much more sense in its original context, framing springtime (and growth, and possibility) as aspects of youth that are, or should be, inherent. The film, therefore, becomes a vital mirror to China’s contemporary workforce, whose lives in all their hues—from their flirtations and fistfights, to the techno music they put on to score their humdrum routines—are defined constantly by the question of what constitutes a living wage. The workers Wang places at the center of his frame might change as the film goes on, but a topic of conversation they all seem to have in common is hoping or negotiating for better pay.

The more the film goes on, the more its framing feels familiar, as though each subject were being shot on cell phones by loved ones—a visual approach Wang slyly hints towards near the movie’s end.

But what prevents Wang’s labor chronicle from falling on the wrong side of didactic is his stylistic approach. It’s casual, but never distant or removed. It feels “objective” at first, as though it were capturing life in all its rhythms without offering comment—after a while, even the cacophony of sewing machines becomes a familiar rhythm—until this naturalistic aesthetic mode becomes commentary in and of itself. The chaotic movement, when two rivals lunge at each other as their co-workers step in, feels akin to something that might go viral online. Shots of lovers leaning against each other on a balcony, captured from behind nearby doors and windows, resemble candid proposal videos we might take for our friends; you could trace the outline of any group on screen and fill it with people you know. The more the film goes on, the more its framing feels familiar, as though each subject were being shot on cell phones by loved ones—a visual approach Wang slyly hints towards near the movie’s end—ensuring that each frame and each interaction begins to feel nostalgic in some way, even when applied to people we’ve only just begun to know.

Familiarity is Wang’s modus operandi in Man In Black as well, though it stands out amidst his filmography as a rare instance of tightly controlled formalism and occasional abstraction. Its subject, 86-year old composer Wang Xilin, is someone the director has known for years. Wang hopes we’ll become just as familiar with his friend’s music and life story, but he takes a highly unconventional approach to molding this proximity: he shoots the aging composer in the nude for the entire hour.

For nearly the first half of the film, the camera rotates slowly and purposefully around Wang Xilin as he hobbles through the darkened spaces of Paris’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a historic performance venue. As composer exercises, performing the strained stretches an old man might use to stay limber, Wang’s camera explores every single contour of his naked body; the curious marks on his torso; his genitalia; an awkwardly formed toenail, perhaps infected by a benign fungus. It goes on so long that each physical “flaw” eventually becomes unremarkable, allowing the viewer to settle completely into this intimate physical and emotional space. When his subject finally begins playing the piano, the camera’s continued focus on his fingers and toes inevitably morphs in context, and his music begins to feel like an extension of his body.

In "The Man in Black," Wang Bing shoots 86-year-old Wang Xilin in the nude for an entire hour.

Courtesy of Icarus Films

It's an exceptional work of music criticism through cinematic technique, exploring the dynamic between an artist and his art—but it soon transforms even further, into a history lesson relayed both orally and musically, as Wang allows his aging friend to open up to the camera. As he relays a painful life story, involving the abuse he faced from the CCP during China’s cultural revolution in the ’60s, Wang’s inquiry into the composer’s work becomes a harrowing exploration of the way he turned not just emotion, but physical torment, into art. Each recollection is accompanied by Wang Xilin’s weighty musical crescendos and booming, operatic denouements, which sometimes even drown out the words he uses to describe them. It’s an overwhelming, astonishing sensory experience that taps into both individual and cultural memory, and enhances the devastating power of the story it seeks to unearth, of a man who has spent decades attempting to translate painful and defining experiences through the language of music. 

Composer Wang Xilin is the subject of "The Man in Black."

Courtesy of Icarus Films

Both Youth (Spring) and Man In Black were selections at Cannes earlier this year, and they both had their U.S. premieres at the ongoing New York Film Festival. They played in different sections at each fest, but their co-programming this year represents a necessary recognition of the kind of intimate portraiture Wang brings to the screen. The way the garment workers huddle together to discuss negotiating better wages has the youthful energy of a high school group project, with snippets of lively chaos that may as well have been recorded for social media. The way Wang Xilin sits, casually and cross legged, feels no different from a grandparent lounging in a living room, before an afternoon of recounting stories. Together, both films make for an unconventional but necessary double feature, each exploring China’s past and present, while being subtly connected through a single continuum of power, relayed to the audience through the medium of human bodies, and the shapes they take on screen.

Published on October 10, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter