A peer into the minute workings of the world’s second-largest economy, Jiuliang Wang’s Plastic China is much more “micro” than its “macro” title suggests. Concentrating on one boss, one worker and the worker’s preteen daughter — who spends more time laboring than schooling — it’s an empathetic, intimate, quietly moving story of wealth inequalities.
Premiering at IDFA in Amsterdam in November, it landed the runner-up Special Jury Award in the “First Appearance” section restricted to debut and second works. Wang’s picture will next feature in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance, where it also forms part of the “New Climate” strand of eco-oriented docs, and further festival play is indicated.
Following up his 2011 Beijing Besieged by Waste, Wang now shifts his attention to Shandong, a province on China’s eastern coast. Here he enjoys seemingly unrestricted access to a small plastic-recycling factory. The owner of this busy enterprise is Kun, a married man in his late 20s who has one son, Qiqi, who is 3 going on 4. The only adult employee who makes any impression is the slightly older Peng, a snazzily dressed hedonist who spends much of his income on booze.
Peng is helped out by his three children, with daughter Jie — who looks about 10 — shouldering much of the burden of labor and childcare. A serious-faced child, Jie is the real focus of Plastic China, the future prospects of this “fast learner” dependent on education, which her father says he can’t afford. Kun, meanwhile, puts in many sweaty shifts himself (“Only from dirty works like this can I support my family”) and complains that he makes low profits because of excessive government taxation.
But where do these taxes go if not on public education? Something doesn’t add up here. Wang, however, is in the business of observation rather than investigation or explanation, giving Kun and Peng equal screen time to verbalize their discontents. Jie’s reflective silences, meanwhile, speak eloquently for themselves — a real pity, then, that Plastic China is the latest documentary to feel the need to insert poignant tinkling piano for any kind of downbeat sequence.
Apart from this sappy scoring*, Plastic China is on the whole an engagingly straightforward affair. Wang’s inquisitive cameras compile a grim reportage of what looks like an unwholesome, even toxic environment for workers, bosses and pint-sized residents alike. Harmful, insidious, invisible forces are evidently at work here, both of a socioeconomic and physiological nature.
But while everyone we see is in some way a victim, that doesn’t excuse personal flaws and self-defeating traits. The alcohol-tippling Peng initially makes an unfavorable impression; in the second half Kun’s grasping acquisitiveness sees him take on the “bad guy” mantle — the feuding duo even come to physical blows at one point, with Kun the aggressor.
He later visits a gaudy Beijing car show where his eye is caught by a model costing the equivalent of $11,500 — this Western-style luxury is in stark contrast to Peng’s reported wages of $6.50 a day. Qiqi’s private school costs, we are told, some $58 a month and a bus ticket back to Peng’s home village in Sichuan would set him back around $75 — no reduction for Jie, despite her tender years.
The picture that takes shape here is of a 21st-century economy that functions as a self-perpetuating trap for those unlucky enough to find themselves within its toils. A far cry, needless to say, from the utopias promised by Chairman Mao in the decades leading up to his death some 40 years ago.
The Beijing section also includes a trip to the Great Helmsman’s mausoleum, where communist slogans now carry a decidedly incongruous air: “All the people will have a well-off life!” By this point, the dark irony of Wang’s title has become apparent, the “plasticity” of Chinese society only applicable to those at the very top of the vast, precarious pile.
Production companies: CNEX, Beijing TYC, Oriental Companion Media
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Jiuliang Wang
Producers: Ruby Chen, Benjamin Guan-ting Tue, Jing Liu
Executive producers: Ben Tsiang, Jean Tsien, Chao-wei Chang, Hsiao-Ming Hsu
Editor: Bob Lee, Jean Tsien
Venue: IDFA (First Appearance Competition)
Sales: CNEX, Beijing (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In Yi, Mandarin Chinese
No Rating, 81 minutes
* The film which premiered at IDFA featured a “temp” musical soundtrack. The version shown at Sundance now features a different soundtrack, composed by Tyler Strickland.