Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed by Guo Xizhi
China, 2016, 196 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
Trailer can be viewed on YouTube.
The documentary Factory Youth takes viewers inside the factory of Konka, an electronics manufacturer located in Shenzhen, China. The director, Guo Xizhi, known for his social-commentary-esque projects, took seven months to shoot and two years to edit the project. The resulting film is a little over three hours long, allowing the audience to experience the real-life pace and details of the factor workers’ lives. However, a reasonable case could be made that a similar result could have been achieved with a shorter edit.
Throughout the film, we follow the lives of a few selected factory workers, get to know their stories, and even follow some to their hometowns. Putting the audience in an observer’s position, the director uses no narration. His goal is to present you with the footage and as a viewer, you can form your own conclusions about what you see.
The fact is, factory life in China has been observed for many years. However, in this film the setting is in a booming big city, in a high-tech factory, and the workers that are featured introduces a different narrative that strays from the often-thought-of conditions and worker profiles.
Myth: Factory workers are mainly from rural areas and are not very sophisticated.
The workers that are featured in Factory Youth are a far cry from uneducated and rural. Footage captured conversations surrounding deep, introspective topics like the meaning of life, hopes and dreams, and gender equality. They talk about their desire for stability, looking for a job, a house, a wife—a lot of sensible thinking. Most of the workers are modern young people from metropolitan areas, they dress stylishly in their time off, and speak accent-free urban Mandarin.
Myth: Factories are dingy, sweatshop-like environments.
Yes, many factories in China are dingy, but not all. Especially in places that produce high-tech products that require meticulous assembly and a high level of quality control, the environment is well lit and clean. Standards of cleanliness and order are maintained. A look in the dormitories of the workers also reinforces this point. Many of the young men are found with computers and video-gaming systems in their rooms while loud music is played in the background. Living quarters are decently spacious and well kept.
Myth: There is no freedom for people who work and live in factories.
Obviously living in the same place of one’s work has its limitations, but there is a fair amount of freedom. Many of the young workers go out after work for meals with friends and enjoy the city. One of the workers is seen taking wedding anniversary photos with her husband during her time off. The director even follows a few of the workers back on their hometown visits.
On the hometown visits, the cultural gap is clearly seen between the young people who have grown up in urban centers and their grandparents/extended family that still uphold rural traditions. The juxtaposition is evident in a situation where a grandma is seen making homemade tofu while her granddaughter takes a photo of the occasion with her smartphone.
The final portion of the film is probably the most unexpected. The director had placed two of his own students in the factory to live and work as regular workers and document their experiences. Surprisingly, the two students break down very early on in the exercise with dramatic bouts of crying, complaining, and claimed many times that they simply could not go on.
Whether the conditions are as bad as the students claim or as tolerable as the workers say, the factory life has its difficulties—loneliness, being away from family/spouse, despair, and meaninglessness. There are many factories in China, and thus, many workers living lives just like these.
A strong reminder that the church is needed here.
Factory Youth has been shown at film festivals around the world, keep an eye out for a screening near you!
Image credit: Factory Youth trailer.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio