Fast Fashion Slow Cinema

A group of people hover over paper at a sewing factory
Work Springs Eternal in Wang Bing's New Film

By Sarah Wang

Last summer, a pair of green pants caught my eye on a sidewalk sale rack. Semi-transparent organza, elastic waistband, seven dollars final sale — a boon for the humid months to come! It wasn’t until I got home and put them on that I noticed a crooked seam, sewn lopsided at one side of the waist. The mistake ruptured the usual invisibility of machinic production, bringing into focus the human hand that must have made this error. Perhaps this was the mark of a sneeze or the moment of a laugh escaping from a body. A head turning when your name is called.

The label read, “Made in China,” where my family fled as exiles to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. My thoughts briefly flitted to my mother, who — instead of going to college as her siblings did—worked in factories as a young woman.

Wang Bing’s newest film, Youth (Spring) is a 2023 documentary filmed in the small textile factories of Zhili, a manufacturing town in Huzhou located about 90 miles west of Shanghai. The three-and-a-half-hour film follows mostly 19- to 21-one-year-old rural migrant workers from the province of Anhui who sew children’s pants, jackets, and dresses while Mando pop blasts on speakers above the din of sewing machines. (It can be streamed on Amazon or Apple TV.) The youngest worker the film identifies is 16 and the oldest is 34. Anyone familiar with Wang, internationally revered as an auteur of slow documentary cinema, will know that this is familiar territory: labor in postindustrial China, following the lives of rural populations who are either left behind or who leave in search of work that will earn them enough to send money to their families and feasibly save for the eventual return home. 

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