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Plastic China

A Film Review

Plastic China
Directed by Jiuliang Wang, CNEX, Beijing TYC, Oriental Companion Media
China, 2016
1 hour, 22 minutes in duration
Yi dialect and Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles

Film is available on iTunes  and Amazon.
Trailer is available on YouTube.

The film Plastic China is a documentary about life in plastic recycling towns in China. The film opens with the line “China is the leading importer of plastic waste from Korea, US, Japan, Europe” and apparently, there are 30 towns in China that survive on the processing of this waste. When we think of waste processing, we may imagine large factories, industrial grade machines, and droves of workers. This could be the case in some instances in China, but it also happens on a much smaller scale.

The director, Jiuliang Wang, has chosen to home in on one town in Shandong province where there are approximately 5,000 plastic recycling shops. The definition of a “shop” includes businesses as small as a single family running their own operation or a family working together with one or two other families. Truckloads of waste are imported and sold to these mom and pop businesses that fill the neighbourhoods. They work right where they live, setting up minimal machinery necessary for their work. Plastic waste is literally everywhere. There is plastic waste in the water, amongst the livestock, in the livestock; it’s burned as fuel; and children are playing in it, bathing in it. In short, we’re looking at life lived in a landfill.

Plastic China gives viewers a closer look at one particular plastic recycling business that is run by a family with a second family that is employed to help. Most of the film takes viewers through the daily lives of these two families. From the work that they do, such as processing the plastic so that it can be sold as pellets, to how they cook their food, raise their kids, and even give birth to a baby right where they live—it’s quite a sight to behold.

The footage captured is candid and vivid but the weakness of the film is in the lack of a story to tie it all together. Furthermore, the root problem—the fact that there is this much plastic waste being imported in the first place (and all the issues that stem from that)—is never mentioned let alone addressed. It’s difficult to know just what the main point of the film is.

Having said that, I did appreciate the way the two families were juxtaposed. Both families find themselves in the same reality—no one possesses the skills to do anything other than process waste. But how the men in each family respond to their circumstances is drastically different.

Kun is the owner of the little operation. He lives right where they work with his wife, their son, and his mother. He admits that this is a dirty job but it’s not bad given he otherwise would be a farmer and that he is trying to make as much money as possible to support his family. He is serious about his son’s education and goes to great lengths to buy his family a new car.

Kun also suffers from health issues due to the nature of his work—breathing in plastic fumes, poor sanitary conditions, etc. but he refuses to go see a doctor stating that if it turns out to be quite serious, he doesn’t know what his family will do, so he’d rather not know.

Kun is a dreamer, but also a fighter. He knows what it will take to attain a better life and strives for it. He is so passionate about this that he even encourages his employee, Peng, to take his own children’s education more seriously.  Kun even offers to adopt Peng’s daughter so that she can go to school. Kun has his flaws, but he sees his reality and he has chosen to fight.

Peng is the employee of Kun. Peng, his wife, and four children (with another one on the way), moved from Sichuan to Shandong four years ago, leaving behind grandparents and relatives. Due to his arthritis, Peng cannot do any other job. He, his wife, and their eldest daughter all work for Kun.

Peng admits to spending most of his earnings (6RMB/day) on cigarettes, alcohol, and food for the family. He refuses to give up his vices so that his children can go to school. He himself never had an education and doesn’t see that his children should be any different.

Meals for his family include cooking dead fish that have been dragged out of plastic-filled lakes nearby. Peng knows that his family cannot survive like this but he cannot get over himself to do anything about it. He is conflicted and the frustration that he fights within himself is visible. He has resigned himself to this way of life and instead of taking responsibility for his family, he simply claims that he will “take things one day at a time.” Peng sees his reality and has chosen to avoid and escape from the consequences.

For every Kun in China, there is likely also a Peng. There are those who fight, and those who flee. Rightly or wrongly, China, with its opportunities and overpopulation, demands a merciless “survival of the fittest” mentality. It is sad when children are caught in the consequences of those choices.

Plastic China is a worthy watch for a glimpse of how lives are lived in these towns but audiences should not expect to walk away with much more than that.

Image credit: Plastic China trailer screenshot.
Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

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 sector, …View Full Bio

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