Sue Williams’ latest China-set docu follows nine personable young men and women of various backgrounds over a four-year period, in the process measuring the almost unimaginable speed of industrialization and globalization currently sweeping the country. Somewhat schematic in its dual professional/personal focus, pic successfully demonstrates the stages of social development through the private dramas of its individual subjects. Despite its hokey title, unfortunate use of voiceover translation and TV biopic rise-and-fall tropes, docu proves an engaging eye-opener. Pic opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on April 11 prior to a summertime “Frontline” airing.
Williams starts with two “returning turtles,” the term used to describe expatriates who come back to China, attracted by the almost limitless money-making opportunities. They manage to launch thriving businesses — Lu Dong runs a Web-based clothing manufacturer, Ben Wu an Internet cafe. But given the accelerated pace of modern-day China, both these wildly successful entrepreneurs are struggling with burnout and disillusionment within a couple years.
On the home-turtle front, Williams follows the fortunes of two subjects who were students at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Zhang Jingjing, inspired by the experience, has become a public-interest lawyer; she now represents some of the 1.5 million Beijing residents displaced by the upcoming Summer Olympics. Xu Weimin, however, renounces political engagement altogether, starting a hotel chain from scratch while dealing with local corruption and a complicated family life. His sick mother, like 70% of the population, has no insurance.
This last dilemma is one faced daily by Zhang Yao, an idealistic young doctor as he passes crowds of people camped out around his hospital begging for care.
Parallel relationship stories range from the doctor’s idyllic romance with an ophthalmology resident to the sad story of Wang Xiaolei, a young rapper who finds fuel for his cynicism and fodder for song lyrics when an Internet cutie takes him for all he’s worth.
Many of Williams’ subjects appear familiarly contemporary in their attempts to juggle demanding jobs and demanding home lives. Other conflicts, though, seem uniquely determined by a society in transition: Migrant worker Wei Zhanyan, who quit school at 13 to make money, first feels empowered by her independence, but sped-up production at the factory quickly renders work onerous, while familial expectations nudge her toward an arranged marriage.
These pastoral excursions allow Williams to contrast China’s futuristic urban skylines with the mist-shrouded hills of a still verdant countryside.
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