“Plastic China” Documentary Comes to Furman

By Murphy Kenefick, Columnist

After debuting his film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, director Jiu-liang Wang brought “Plastic China” to Furman University. Accompanied by a translator, Wang gives a brief introduction of the film and quickly rushes to start it, joking that he is acting as the “projectionist for the evening.” The film revolves around 2 families working in the plastic wasteland of rural China, recycling the various artificial materials to support themselves. The heart of the story is in 11-year-old Yi-Jie, a joyful, resilient young girl whose main dream is to be back in her home city in school. This obviously proves to be difficult as her father is bound to alcoholism, several other children and a strong distrust of the rest of the world. It’s all constructed in a piecemeal fashion with no voiceover narration or direct interviews with the subjects. Instead, the audience gathers information about these people through their daily activities and attitudes toward them. The tone is largely empathetic, putting on display these people who are doing the best with what they have and, for the most part, maintaining an optimistic attitude.

The true power of the film comes in its moments. Watching children excitedly cut out ads for colorful shoes and then cutting sharply to seeing those same children washing their face with murky water elicits the full spectrum of response. The more the film plays out, the more investing it becomes as you feel more hope and more dread for the future of these families. The director’s empathy shines through each scene as we watch these people do activities that are so mundane for them, but so bizarre for us. For example, every day, they sort trash, go looking in massive piles for children’s toys, push sludge through a conveyor belt and wash themselves outside with contaminated water. Each of these images powerfully resonate and leave the lasting impression that Wang intended.

There is the constant hope for forward mobility, whether it be for a new car, products ordered over the Internet or the next step in education. Desire for these things no doubt stem from the ads that are discovered from American magazines, displaying the true power of capitalistic marketing. From the plant leader, we hear several speeches on the importance of education because it will inevitably lead to money and success. Whether that ideal is sound or not, it serves as the primary motivator for these people and instills a distant sense of hope.

In the discussion held afterwards, director Wang had much to say about the urgency and poignancy of this issue. He described the process of researching the extensive plastics industry and how China has become largely dependent on it. According to him, countries such as the U.S. export their plastic waste to China so that they can process and recycle it. This tough work creates a profit for the citizens, but it is very damaging to the environment. This point comes across in the film as we see the unsanitary squalor that the families live in. Naturally, the Chinese government has banned the film, declaring that it defames and lies about these practices. That claim is, of course, false, and it hasn’t stopped Wang from pursuing the subject or from personally aiding the cause himself.

“Plastic China” was a very moving film of cultural relevance, economic urgency, and familial, that hopefully will gain a larger release in the next few months.

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