China, they recycle plastic, but throwaway lives. It is the leading importer of
plastic waste from the West, but education is a luxury dependent on factors like
family income and geography. The savage inequalities of contemporary China are
inescapably evident in the Shandong recycling plant, whose routines and
travails are captured in Wang Jiu-liang’s Plastic
which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
you discard might end up in Kun’s struggling recycling plant. The owner labors
like a mule, but his employee Peng mostly comes across like a lazy drunk.
Frankly, Peng’s ten-year-old daughter Yi-jie has a much greater work ethic. She
seems to have assumed most of the family’s childcare duties to relieve her
constantly pregnant mother, but also does her share of plastic sorting.
Kun and the audience can plainly see the responsible-beyond-her-years Yi-jie
should be in school, but the useless Peng spends most of the family’s money on
drink. Obviously, the idea of simply enrolling her in public school is
completely foreign in this province. It would cost Peng a considerable tuition
fee under the best of circumstances, but the fact they are ethnic Yi from
Sichuan, without proper residency permits, presents further complications.
previous documentary was the environmental horror show Beijing Besieged by Waste, so it would seem he has a perverse
affinity for dumps and waste-processing facilities. However, Plastic is very much focused on its
human subjects. Yi-jie quickly emerges as Wang’s focus, whom viewers will
earnestly root for. She is a hard-working, sensitive kid, who deserves a
future, but it is not clear she will have one.
Wang’s approach is strictly observational, he clearly takes sides in the recycling
plant’s conflicts. Of course, it is difficult to fault him for aligning with
youthful innocence and virtue. On the other side of the spectrum, the myriad
flaws of both Kun and Peng are mercilessly exposed for the audience to pass
judgement on. Still, life is hard for everyone in Plastic—and it only gets harder. For extra, added irony, the hollow
words of Chairman Mao constantly echo throughout the film.
has been shoehorned into Sundance’s
environmental theme this year, but even if the recycling plant were pristine
and carbon-neutral, it still would be no place for a child with Yi-jie’s
potential. After meeting her on-screen, you might be tempted to trash some
plastic toys in hopes they might reach her, but that is about as likely as
successfully delivering a message in bottle. What she really needs are a more equitable
educational system and fairer residency regulations. Recommended for its human
drama and the genuine outrage it inspires, Plastic
China screens again tomorrow (1/22), Tuesday (1/24). Thursday (1/26), and
Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Documentary, Sundance '17