“I never thought there was such a big world out there,” says Wei Zhanyan as she walks to work in a factory. A migrant worker sent to work at 13 in order that her brother could continue his studies, Zhanyan is proud of making 40 cents an hour and glad to feel independent of her family, who remain in the village where she was born. Offering a brief tour of her one-room apartment and reveling in her freedom to read a book or watch television after work, she pauses, briefly, to wonder about what might have been. “I always wondered how other parents could support their children’s education, but not mine,” she says. Taking off her glasses to dab at her eyes, Zhanyan apologizes to her interviewer, then readjusts. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she says. “It sounds like I am blaming my parents for not living up to their responsibilities. But that’s past.”
It is and it isn’t. For even as Zhanyan lives her present life in the city she is also tied to her past. This much is made clear when she learns, just a few minutes into Sue Williams’ Young & Restless in China, that her father has arranged for her marriage through a matchmaker. And so, Zhanyan announces, “I got engaged, just like that.” Still, she muses, “I like to be free and independent.” And so she faces a dilemma, caught between old and new.
In this, Zhanyan is much like the other eight interview subjects in Young & Restless, which airs on 17 June on PBS’ Frontline. From 2004 to 2007, Williams’ crew followed them, observing their professional and personal turns. The film’s wide-ranging and mostly superficial structure — cutting quickly between participants, narrating cursorily to set contexts, and offering brief “confessional” comments by each subject — recalls alternately the Michael Apted’s Up series and The Real World, a mix of pop cultural reportage and current events documentation.
Construction in preparation for the Beijing Olympics provides a recurrent image — workers in hard hats, bulldozers, and scaffolding — reminding you that the nation is looking forward to a “global coming out party” even as citizens struggle with day to day details. Workaholic Ben Wu has returned to Beijing after a decade in the States, with a plan to open a string of internet cafés, modeled on Starbucks, but bigger and glossier. As he leads the camera crew through the first opening, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” wafts in the background, blue lights throbbing and stylish spaces less than crowded. The cash flow is good, he says, and his investors are happy. And yet, Wu reflects later, his wife is working on her accounting degree in the U.S., which means he’s feeling lonely for much of the year. “I should just get on a flight and go to New York and be with my wife just for a weekend,” he says. “My café is not gonna go bankrupt over the weekend, so why don’t I do it? I can’t answer that question.”
Similarly dedicated to her career, public interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing sees her social and political formation initiated by the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As preparations for the Olympics pick up speed in 2005, the government forcing “one and a half million residents” from their homes or erecting non-approved electric lines around their neighborhoods, Jingjing sues the state on behalf of affected citizens. Though she insists the case is not “opposed” to the government per se, she does want to ensure that the law is followed during the rush to get ready for the Games. “We targeted an illegitimate licensing procedure,” she says, “We sued because we believe that people come first.” Her commitment to the cause takes tolls on her own life, as she admits a year later, when her fiancé breaks off with her. She knows it’s because she doesn’t put him “first,” but she’s torn, too, and not a little hurt that he finds solace with another woman who “flattered him.”
Hospital resident Xu Weimin also feels formed by Tiananmen, “the June fourth incident,” and he too is frustrated by the lack of long-term effects on policy. Nearly 70% of Chinese have no medical insurance, narrator Ming Wen notes. The film shows Xu Weimin making his way through literal crowds of people waiting outside the hospital, seeking medical attention, mostly unable to afford it. As he succeeds, he must also consider those left behind, like his own parents, no longer insured, his daily existence reflecting the film’s central focus on the split in today’s China between “idealism and materialism.” As opportunities increase — one participant declares the new imperative to “Get rich as fast as you can and have a good life” — large swaths of the population remain in limbo or fall behind.
Rapper Wang Xiaolei (MC Sir) has creative as well economic ambitions. “People look down on you if you don’t make money,” he says, as he explains his identification with black U.S. hip-hop artists. The walls in his bedroom (he lives with his grandfather; his parents are divorced) feature posters of KRS-One, while the stories he tells through his music are specific to his own experience, including his relationships and, as the film puts it, “ancient Chinese myth.” Energetic and surrounded by fellow artists, Wang Xiaolei makes money as a DJ, but has plans to start an independent label and produce records.
His family problems loom large on Wang Xiaolei’s landscape of frustration, but they’re put in another perspective by the story of Yang Haiyan, a housewife whose mother was “trafficked” 18 years ago. Determined to find her mother and “bring her home,” Haiyan and her husband finally track her down. The camera follows them to the village where she embraces her mother and listens to the details of her kidnapping and trauma. Now living with a man, “cooking and cleaning and sleeping with him,” Haiyan’s mother wants to return with her daughter but is also conflicted, feeling obligated to care for a new baby and, having lived so long feeling dread and shame over her situation, afraid to go back.
Such is the recurring rhythm of Young & Restless, found in tensions between yearning and restriction, hope and acquiescence. Even as Wei Zhanyan finds it in herself to reject the marriage her father has arranged, insisting on her independence, other subjects living in much finer surroundings, worry over money and obligations. The film reveals so many similarities — in ambition, possibility, and material interest — between China and the West. But the prevailing resemblance remains the tension between capitalism’s promises and realties.