Since the late '80s, documentarian Sue Williams has been tracking the evolving Chinese culture, starting with a quartet of films about China in the 20th century—from pre-Mao to post-Tiananmen—and then moving on to a series of documentaries about contemporary life. Young & Restless In China is the first of a planned five-part series that will follow nine diverse Chinese citizens over the course of 20 years. Once a year since 2004, Williams has checked in with a tailored-shirt salesman, an Internet-café owner, a factory worker, an activist lawyer, a hotelier, a doctor in training, a housewife, a marketing executive, and a rapper. Young & Restless culls from the first four years of the project, as all nine of them—all of whom are under 40—deal with starting their own careers and families in a society very much in flux.
Williams is a straightforward filmmaker, more in the mold of a journalist than an artist or essayist. Young & Restless is heavy on the interviews (most of them dubbed into English), intercut with just a little slice-of-life footage. But while the film tells much more than it shows, what it tells is worth hearing. The current conventional wisdom holds that the recently opened markets in China have turned the nation into a capitalist paradise, where any crafty entrepreneur can get rich. But the subjects of Young & Restless explain that nothing gets done in their business world without some government palms getting greased, and they also talk about how much of their idealism got crushed when the student democracy movement was steamrollered in the late '80s, and how China is still a place where human trafficking takes place with the tacit approval of the nation at large.
Yet while Williams pays attention to the particular problems of doing business in China—like whether an advertising logo should be more red, to please the state, or less red, to please communism-weary consumers—she's just as interested in how work, technology, and modernization are impacting her subjects' personal lives. For all the stress about the coming Olympics and human-rights violations, Young & Restless makes it clear that for the Chinese themselves, their problems are much more personal: how to make their parents happy, how to keep a relationship alive, and how to make enough money to keep up with the changes all around them.