Filmmaker Sue Williams revisits nine Chinese Gen X-ers every year for four years, tracking their struggles to achieve their personal goals as their country's rapidly changing political, social and economic climate presents unprecedented opportunities.
The nine subjects represent a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ranging from two young women who leave their farming communities to become migrant workers in urban factories to one young man who was raised in the U.S. and another who was educated in Canada, both of whom return to China to make their fortunes.
Striving for Better Lives Is A Universal Quest
Surprisingly, the Chinese Gen X-ers' struggles are quite like those faced by young men and women in the U.S. They want to get ahead, to accumulate sufficient wealth to be independent and live comfortably. The extent of their ambitions are determined, to a large extent, by their background circumstances--some of which are more uniquely Chinese than others. For example, the migrant worker who comes from a traditional farming family just wants to be able to earn enough to take care of herself, and is struggling to overcome loneliness but also wants to dodge the arranged marriage her father sets up for her. More similar: the U.S. biz school grad successfully forms an entrepreneurial partnership with Chinese investors but faces an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy while building a trendy Internet cafe, the first of a proposed chain of similar cash cows. He's left his wife and parents in the U.S. to make a killing in China, and is desperately lonely. A Chinese biz school grad who sells mutual funds faces feelings of guilt when she's expected to lead elder citizens to the possible loss of their life savings through somewhat risky investments. And, a public interest lawyer faces government scrutiny because she's represented 'the people' in suing the government-owned electric company for illegal construction of a high energy tower in a residential area. The Canadian-educated entrepreneur leaves the financial security an established corporation for the more speculative business of online retailing. Each character's situation has changed each time we check in with them.
They are appealing people, and we can identify with their familiar stories. In fact, there's not much about their situations that sets them apart from Gen X-ers elsewhere in the world, including the U.S.
Of course, China's modernization and shift away from traditional values and behavior and Maoist ideology is specific and unique, but its impact seems to cause subtle and persistent anxiety in these young men and women, instead of downright upheaval in their lives. Yes, Williams does set the stage with archival footage of the dramatic student protest and massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but her subjects weren't principals in that infamous event. And, in their discussion, most of the characters express concerns for the welfare of the people--a lingering element, no doubt, of Chinese Maoist socialist training. But, for the Williams nine, the most prickly issues actually dealt with seem to be the opting out of an arranged marriage, a woman's search for her kidnapped mother and several charaters finding that their work ethics conflict with their romantic interests--but all of these are eventually resolved without much conflict, at least not with conflit that we witness.
Not that conflict is necessarily the stuff of documentaries but--as with other movie genres--it heightens interest. If Young & Restless in China finds it difficult to live up to its soap opera name, it also falls short of establishing itself as the film of record about China's current social, political and economic changes. Not enough background, not enough of a time span.
It Could Go Further
At best, this one off film seems reminiscent of the BBC's ongoing Up Series
, which has chronicled the lives of a varied group of 14 British youths ever since they were seven years old in 1964, revisiting them every seven years to track their doings and development as they matured and assumed their places in British society.
Sue Williams' nine subjects are just as interesting and differentiated as the Up characters. It would be interesting to know just how and why she selected them in particular, and whether she might be thinking of returning to film then again in the future--every several or seven years or so--to see what the future has in store for them--in a Chinese Up, if you will. Now, that would become a documentary of record--provided Williams' could get access, and her subjects sustain our interest and their evolving lives dramatically reflect China's political, cultural and economic evolution.