In Focus: Youth in China

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

In Focus spotlights dGenerate titles that shed light on some of the weightiest issues in contemporary China. From the environment to government corruption to youth culture, the overlapping concerns of these films create a dialogue on some of China’s most compelling stories.

"Super, Girls!" (dir. Jian Yi)

From the disillusionment of a nascent political movement to the stark inequalities of a population in cultural tilt, films about youth in China reframe the way we evaluate the nation’s past, present and future. China’s sizeable youth population has long been a driving force in the nation’s labor, political, and intellectual development. Whether this youthful energy is applied towards exploited labor or championing a favored pop star, the voices of Chinese youth can help determine a style, a zeitgeist, and a moment of history.

The wide gulf in the experiences of “youth,” however, begs the consideration of the many young people who represent one of China’s least privileged populations. From migrant labor and trafficking to the battle for education, the plight of many children and their struggle to survive is a heartbreaking challenge. The following films adopt myriad perspectives to present the condition of youth in both today’s China and in the China of the past; attitudes of curiosity, unrest, longing, and a way to see China though younger eyes.

"No. 89 Shimen Road" (dir. Shu Haolun)

In No. 89 Shimen Road, director Shu Haolun tells a classic coming-of-age story, though one of characteristics painstakingly unique to a specific time and place: his own adolescence in a long-since-demolished Shanghai neighborhood in the late 1980s. Coming off the lilting reminiscence of his documentary Nostalgia, which culls personal and collective memory from the Shanghai neighborhood of Dazhongi as it is demolished to make way for a more modern Shanghai skyline, No. 89 Shimen Road follows sixteen-year-old Xiaoli who photographs his changing world and the vital characters who occupy it. Apart from the concerns of early teenage lust and an eerie shade loss that shadows the post-Cultural Revolution atmosphere of the 1980s, Xiaoli is unwittingly swept into the spirit of the 1989 student democratic protests. Culminating in a botched attempt to join the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, No. 89 Shimen Road presents a loaded moment in both national and personal history and, through the use of black and white photographs and a deeply-felt narrative, transports the viewer effectively through Shu Haolun’s memory – to a moment that has come and gone, but still sparks.

The documentary Super, Girls!, directed by Jian Yi, examines a youthful preoccupation in which the political and the personal are subsumed into the nation’s obsession with a TV pop star talent contest and the rabid fans who fuel the competition onscreen and off. The show Super Girls! – China’s answer to American Idol – ran on CCTV for numerous years before being shut down last summer and inspired legions of teenage girls flocking to audition sites and, overcoming personal failure to compete, rallying for their favorite stars, dominating the internet with Super Girls! gossip and advocacy, and even spinning the national craze into various entrepreneurial ventures. While amusing and wry, Jian Yi’s documentary shows one of China’s rare brushes with democracy (the results of the competition are voter-based), but moreover, displays a broad cross-section of young women in modern China: their dreams, their pragmatism, and the fire that ignites when the stakes for even something as seemingly-trivial as a singing competition, are raised.

"Little Moth" (dir. Peng Tao)

Peng Tao‘s Little Moth is a heart-wrenching portrait of the powerlessness and prevailing spirit of one young Chinese girl. This strong-willed narrative tells the story of eleven-year-old “Little Moth,” who is sold by her father to a migrant couple who neglect her need for urgent medical care. Using framing both poignantly and unnervingly direct, Peng Tao tells a story that never panders or cloys, but shows the stark reality of life for a profoundly disadvantaged young woman. Touching on the injustices of migrant life in contemporary China, Little Moth is more than a story of youth, but a contained drama on the greatest facets of human society – cruelty, sympathy, and power.

The injustices reigning over the lives of migrant children are likewise documented in Cui Zi’en‘s We Are the … of Communism, which examines the struggle of a group of migrant children to claim their right to education after their Beijing school is closed by city officials. Tracing the prejudices and structural hardships these children must endure to seek education – that which might hold the key to a better life – We Are The … of Communism speaks to the spoils of a broken system and the tenacity of a group of children so tragically marginalized by their government and society at large.