Shen Jie’s “Little Proletarian” is a wild independent documentary that follows a group of troubled youths in a small rural town in China. The film focuses primarily on Hai’er, a 14-year-old boy who has been expelled from school and who now spends his days hanging around aimlessly with his friends. They fill their time fighting with their gang, racing around the countryside roads on their motorbikes, or lurking at the local hair salon. Frequent beatings and scolding from his angry father do no good, and Hai’er lands himself in trouble with the police, having been investigated several times in the past. After talking with ex-convicts and criminals he makes the decision to head for the big city, where he believes he can finally find his place in society, and more importantly, make big money.
Though undeniably a bit rough around the edges, “Little Proletarian” is a real gem, and has everything that could be wanted from an indie documentary – a strong sense of character and place, stunning visuals, rare social insight, and an untamed punk spirit. Director Shen Jie describes the film as “a song for the youth who cannot find a place in this overpowering environment”, and Hai’er makes for a great protagonist, every inch the consummate juvenile delinquent – it’s both fun and shocking to see him and his gang going about their daily business and mischief. Though badly behaved and often unpleasant, whether taken on his own merits (or lack thereof) or as a symbol of an emerging new generation of wayward Chinese youths, there’s something very engaging about his story. Shen Jie takes an observational approach to the subject and his characters and never passes judgement, and the film is all the more intriguing as a result. This is a side of Chinese youth which most viewers will be unfamiliar with, and what the film presents here feels fresh and surprising.
A native of Zunyi in Guizhou Province, Shen Jie spent several years following the completion of his studies travelling around many different regions in the north west of Yunnan Province, including Lugu Lake, Lijiang and Tibet, and the film has a very strong and unique sense of place. As also seen in his films “Ghost Festival” (2012) and “I Give an Auspicious Occasion for My Country Dead” (2013), he has a great eye for local details, and the film has a strong visual sense, making good use of its rural scenery through a grounded rather than picture postcard approach. The film also benefits from some tight editing, and though it sticks to a fairly formal documentary style, it’s a well-paced and consistently engaging affair, clocking in at an efficient 68 minutes.
Though “Little Proletarian” does cover some specifically Chinese societal issues there’s a definite universality to its depictions of rebellion and misdeeds, and its portrayal of youths afflicted by boredom and trapped by a lack of opportunities reflects not only changes in modern China but around the world. Ultimately, it gives rise to the unanswered question as to whether Hai’er is the product of his environment and part of a larger trend in his country – and if so, what can be done?
(“Little Proletarian” screens at the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival as part of the Voices from China Now double bill with “The Cold Winter” in partnership with DocHouse on Monday 12th May at Riverside Studios in London.)