There’s novelty but not a lot of substance to Jiu-liang Wang’s documentary “Plastic China,” which serves as a thematic sequel of sorts to his 2011 “Beijing Besieged by Waste.” The description of the new film is intriguing: It portrays the lives of workers in an unnamed Chinese town entirely dedicated to the recycling of plastic. But the purist vérité approach allows almost no probing of the environmental, health, political, and other big-picture issues obviously relevant here, and the close-up focus on a few individuals provides frustratingly limited insight as well. With any random few minutes affording as much understanding as the near-structureless whole, this might have worked better as a video installation piece.
An opening title informs viewers that China is the leading importer of plastic waste from Japan, Korea, Europe, and the U.S., and later, we learn that the burg visited here boasts thousands of individual recycling operations. But that’s about it for the objective facts, and we never get much understanding of the overall community, since Wang’s camera trains exclusively on two families. One is presided over by ever-shirtless twentysomething Kun, a hard worker who’s materially ambitious and has the discipline to make some of those dreams come true. Then there’s the older, rocker-mulleted Peng, who says arthritis forced him from his native Sichuan province to relocate his wife and four (soon five) children here.
Where Kun dutifully saves to send his (so far) only offspring to school, Peng has no such lofty goals, admitting he prefers to spend his money on drink, and shrugging that his kids can get educated whenever they return to their old village, where it’s free. (The extent of their isolation and ignorance is revealed when one is asked who Chairman Mao is, and the boy responds “Chairman who?”) Meanwhile, any youngster past toddler age must do some foraging and sorting, hopefully finding a discarded toy or two amid their toil. And Peng’s eldest child, daughter Yi Jie, who looks well short of adolescence, is already a full-time baby-sitter for her siblings.
There’s inevitable poignancy to watching these fringe-dwellers of industrial society gaze yearningly at First World wealth, whether online, via the mountains-of-trash remains, or in a jarring group visit to a glossy car show. But “Plastic China” invites pity for these people without providing much information about them, or their circumstances. It takes a very long time before we discover the significant fact that Kun is, in fact, Peng’s boss.
Health issues are only hinted at. Kun refuses to see a doctor for fear he might already have contracted god knows what ailments from the toxic-looking work being done. Still, there’s no commentary whatsoever on the actual, likely dire, results of inhaling burning-plastic fumes daily with no protective gear whatsoever.
The documentary raises a large number of questions, but answers almost none. Are the wages Peng complains about ($6/hour doesn’t sound so awful, until he notes that one month’s electric bill is $800) exploitative even by Chinese unskilled-labor standards? And what happens to all this plastic that’s recycled into pellets and other forms? “Plastic China” is one of those films where the synopsis on the website provides more information than anything onscreen.
Nonetheless, there are moments of piquancy as children play in the detritus of a wasteful world, and others of sheer oddity as we see plastic morph by the ton into unrecognizable shapes (like giant tubes of toothpaste-like goo) whose processing appears an open invitation to cancer. Sometimes the entire landscape here seems composed of colorful plastic trash as far as the eye can see, rendering a sudden glimpse of grass, let alone sheep, startling. In one of the movie’s few informative moments, it’s not surprising to learn that these sheep have problems because they inevitably swallow some plastic while eating that grass.