Youth (Spring) (Icarus Films, NR)

It’s no secret that the clothing manufacture is a major industry in China—in fact, China has  been the world leader in apparel production for more than a decade, with revenues of $303 billion (in U.S. dollars) from that industry in 2021. Chances are you have some Chinese-produced clothing in your closet, but, like most people (myself included) you may never have considered how and by whom it was made.

Clothing production today is still a hands-on industry—the fabrics are produced by machines, but actually putting a garment together is primarily done by human beings feeding pieces of cloth through a sewing machine. Chinese manufacturers are internationally competitive because they can supply goods cheaply, and they can do that because much of the clothing is produced in factories where workers are paid low piecework rates.

Wang Bing’s documentary Youth (Spring) takes you inside the lives of a group of young adults who work in the garment industry in Zhili City, a manufacturing center for children’s clothing located about 95 miles from Shanghai. It’s home to over 18,000 private workshops employing about 300,000 workers. The workshop floors we see are crowded with machinery and piles of clothing and workers performing repetitive yet finicky tasks at high speed (with piecework, working slowly and carefully means earning less) and with little in the way of protection. It’s a scene that, except for the modern clothing and smartphones, could have taken place in the American sweatshops of a century ago.

The young people featured in Youth (Spring) are mostly in their late teens or early 20s and come from nearby rural areas. They’re there by choice, so presumably factory work is a step up from whatever was on offer in their home towns. They live in crowded dorms that are predictably messy and, as you would expect with any group of young people spending a lot of time in close proximity, there’s always a lot going on. They tease and gossip and flirt, enjoying each other’s company, and were it not for their dingy surroundings might be mistaken for college students enjoying their first taste of freedom.

For most of these workers, it’s their first time living on their own and, and they enjoy being able to spend their free time as they choose. Adults are rarely seen and aren’t major presences in the daily lives of these workers, although of course adults own the factories and set the working conditions and pay rates. With young men and women spending so much time together, sometimes unintended pregnancies result. Unlike in the United States, however, abortions are readily available and are not considered a moral issue. In one early scene, the main concern regarding a woman worker whose pregnancy is becoming obvious is not the pregnancy or the abortion themselves but the fact that she should complete a pile of work before leaving for the hospital.

Youth (Spring) is not an expose of garment factory conditions so much as a collective portrait of the people who work in them. Chyrons identify individuals by name, age, and hometown at their first appearance, but the featured workers function in the film like the elements in a Bruegel painting: each figure is distinct and unique but takes its meaning as part of a larger whole. Despite running more than three hours and being a work of direct cinema (so no voiceovers, no interviews, no inserted animations or re-enactments) it’s never dull, and by the end you feel you haven’t just observed these young workers, you’ve been immersed in their world. That result is a real credit to editors Dominique Auvray and Xu Bingyuan as well as to the factories and dorms extraordinary access Wang was able to arrange (the factory owners did not object to the conditions of work and living being recorded, but were only concerned that filming would not interrupt the flow of work).

Youth (Spring) was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes (Anatomy of a Fall won) and won the and Best Documentary Feature at the Golden Horse Festival in Taiwan. Best news: there’s more to come, as Youth (Spring) is the first film in a planned trilogy that will run 9-10 hours in total and follow these characters over a more extended period of time. | Sarah Boslaugh

Youth (Spring) is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films and is available for streaming from Icarus Films on Demand, Vimeo on Demand, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *