If you're interested in China, there's not a better starting place on film than Sue Williams' amazing documentaries.
Her latest, "Young and Restless in China," explores the lives of young men and women spiritually adrift in China's new world. I'm using the term "spiritually" broadly in this case, but it really is the unifying theme that runs throughout these young lives. They're all searching for some ultimate sense of meaning in a country that seems to be on the verge of overheating as the world's biggest economic engine.
As a journalist, I'm hugely impressed with Sue Williams' many years of commitment to exploring China and producing a long series of top-notch documentaries. If you've seen her earlier overviews of Chinese history, this new film opens with a breath-taking freshness - like jumping on the back of one of the motorcycles in the film and racing through the streets of China. (To see more of her earlier work, take a look at "China: A Century of Revolution" China: A Century of Revolution (Three Disc Set))
Without years of immersion in China, I can't imagine how it would be possible to produce such a film with intimate access to the lives of young adults. I was especially touched by the life of Wei Zhanyan, who may appear to us as perhaps an American exchange student pursuing a college degree when we first glimpse her walking through the streets. In reality, she's virtually a slave in China -- an impoverished migrant worker who was forced to leave school at an early age to support her family. Eventually, she was forced into complete exile from her family to take a job assembling cell-phone headsets.
Somehow, Williams is able to follow her back to her tiny room, a sort of makeshift shelter, where Wei Zhanyan curls up and writes in her diary about life's difficult challenges. She feels that she is carrying her entire family on her shoulders. She misses them very much - and yet she's caught in a vice-grip of work and poverty. She says, "I don't dare have any ideas or ideals."
Some young Chinese rebel a little more openly like the rapper we meet with the word "reckless" tattooed in Chinese on his neck. He's one of the motorcyclists we spot in the film. He says without a hint of awareness at the strange leap he is making: "Hip hop empowered me because I can identify with black people in America."
Williams is such a good documentarian that we meet each of these "young and restless" men and women on their own terms without condescension or ironic twists forced upon the material by the filmmaker.
The openness in these stories will touch your heart even as it stirs your mind to a greater understanding of life in our world's emerging superpower.
Think about seeing this film with a small group. There's a lot to talk about here.