[6 August 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Do you know what kind of place you’re at now? It seems you have failed to perceive what reality is.” A doctor stands over 16-year-old Xi Wang, called Hope, and coaxes him to consider his new surroundings and how he got here. Those surroundings are Daxing Boot Camp, located in a suburb of Beijing. How he got here is another story, or maybe several stories. Asked “What is reality?”, Hope shakes his head as the camera cuts to a low-angle close-up of his face. He bites his lip.
This question of reality—what it might be, for whom, when and for what reasons—swirls at the center of Web Junkie, a terrific and shrewdly provocative documentary set inside the boot camp. One of more than 400 rehabilitation centers in China, Daxing is set up like a military school, with students assigned to bunk beds, eating in a central cafeteria, and given treatment.
From what we see, this consists primarily of counseling sessions (including family therapy when parents can manage their schedules to attend), reciting pro-China chants in groups, and ten-day stints in isolation. The children here—primarily teenaged boys—are deemed addicted to World Of Warcraf, the many hours they spend online in their bedrooms or at internet cafés having alarmed their parents. Hope’s father tricked him to get to him to the facility.
When he’s in the room with doctors and counselors, Hope looks appropriately abashed, his voice quiet and his eyes lowered. When the kids are on their own—as much as this can happen here—they act out like other teenagers might. They complain about the food, the treatment, their parents. They suggest the “disease” they’re supposed to have is not a disease at all, but instead, a “social phenomenon”. You might be inclined to appreciate such insight, or at least the effort to wonder what’s at stake in naming and treating the addiction.
The facility appears to employ a number of male drillmasters and counselors (almost all women), under the direction of Professor Tao, who explains a few times what he has determined to be the problem. Families have become fragmented, parents working long hours and children left to their own devices—usually devices that grant access to the internet so they might seek out emotional lives outside their homes.
Tao presents his task as something like re-programming. The students must be brought back into a reality where their parents and other adults abide. In Web Junkie, this reality looks grim, at least within the camp walls. The rooms are small, the windows are grated, the marches and calisthenics performed each morning are awkward and repetitive.
When some parents come for limited visits, they stand on the opposite side of a gate adorned with plastic vines and red flowers: as the camera views the boys from the parents’ view, they look forlorn, small, hard to see. The reverse view hardly makes the mothers look any more assured: they bow their heads, they reach their fingers through the bars. One father doesn’t quite look at his son as he murmurs, “I try to keep in touch with the center, I don’t have time to come for classes. I’ll try to come more often next week.” As he turns and walks off, the boy stands behind the gate, his figure small and pushed to the back of the frame.
Each scene seems a piece of a puzzle for you to put together, rather than a chronology or an explanation. One of Hope’s meetings with his family is arranged in the doctor’s office so that Hope and a couple of peers (all wear the facility’s green-camouflage t-shirts) sit on one side of the room, with his father, mother and siblings sit on the other, as dad recalls their lack of “communication” and his own tendency to be “rough” on the boy. “There was a time I tried to stab him with a knife,” the father says, his wife and other children looking away, at anything in the room but him. “At that time my intention was to frighten him, I didn’t really want to stab him.” The doctor nods. “Distrust is the origin of despair,” she says, “If he can’t trust you, he won’t respect you.”
If the fact of the camera—its presence, your view—shapes such interactions in ways you’ll never know, still the film draws your attention to it, in its wide angles, deep focus images, and mobile frames. And so the interactions among family members, counselors, and students seem simultaneously raw and audacious, but also performative, raising questions about whose reality prevails.
When a father stands before a group of parents to lay out the cultural ad economic conditions that may have produced this generation of addicts (the one child rule, the parents who care only about schoolwork, the parents who cannot be home), his audience listens in a series of group- and one-shots, some in tears, others with brows furrowed. As Tao sums up, instructing the parents on their children’s loneliness, each mother and father looks alone and also, they all seem related in the dim light and the cigarette smoke haze.
Sometimes, the loneliness is overwhelming. Gao Quance, a 15-year-old who goes by the name Hacker, makes his way down a dark dorm hallway, away from the camera. He’s stopped short by a monitor who overhears him. “Did I hear you say ‘fuck’?” A couple of other kids keep moving, Hacker is frozen. “Go stand over there,” he’s instructed, then sent to the drillmaster’s office. Here, the camera is dauntingly close to both individuals, the drillmaster not looking much older than his charge. “Stand straight,” he tells Hacker. “Is what you did was wrong?” he asks. “Is it right or wrong?”
There seems no good answer, and after a moment or two of not answering, Hacker admits, “I don’t want to stay here anymore.” A few beats later, he adds that he also doesn’t want to see his parents. The drillmaster has no good answer either: “You think you can do whatever you want in this space?”
This space, for now, is reality, and the boys inside it learn to follow the rules. Following a doomed effort to escape—a group of boys sneak out one night, go to an internet café, only to be found, returned, and punished—Hope endures time in isolation (viewed for brief moments through a tiny mailbox-looking slot) and then another session with his father. “Do you think you’ve become more self-conscious?” asks the doctor. “More self-conscious?” he asks back. “I’m critical of myself.”
The terms start to slide as realties intersect and veer away from one another. “You are different now,: the doctor tells Hope; he must love his father, and also understand the pain he has caused for his family. She has the boy kneel in front of his father and say “Dad” 30 times, then say, out loud, “I love you.” The ritual places the two close to one another in “the space”, as they both follow rules. And when it’s done, none of it seems even close to reality.