Numbers are almost always a central part of attempts to translate China into a nation that Americans can comprehend. The statistics, after all, are impressive and unignorable - it's a nation of 1.3 billion people where the economy is growing at 9 percent a year, and where a new coal-burning power plant goes up every week.
Energized by a soundtrack of Chinese rock and hip-hop, the two-hour film follows five men and four women in a series of short vignettes, starting in 2004 and continuing over four years - long enough for several mini-dramas to crop up and come to resolution. The group includes a rapper, an environmental lawyer, a medical resident, two migrant workers, and two businessmen who have come home after living abroad, known in China as "returning turtles."
Their struggles are personal and familiar, and so are their stories. The rapper nurses a broken heart, delivered by his Internet sweetie. A career woman resists family pressure to have a child, and a workaholic entrepreneur wonders why he's unfulfilled. A young woman is caught between marrying the man her father has chosen and her desire to maintain independence.
As we've learned from feminists, the personal is political, but producer Sue Williams determinedly avoids drawing conclusions about the intersections between her subjects' lives and China's changing political and economic landscape.
In fact, with the exception of a look back at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which inspired the lawyer's activist career, Williams also leaves out the historical context that would allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between a changing China and its citizens' lives. It's not that viewers need a full-on academic lecture, but a little help starting with a map to show where these likable young people live would be nice.
Even so, there's plenty to be gleaned about the influence of the past from what people say today. A marketing consultant hesitates to use too much of the color red in an advertisement, for fear of association with the Cultural Revolution. When a young woman jilts her fiance, the filmmaker asks if he'd ever considered whether the marriage would make him happy.
"Nope," he says. "Never thought about it."
But if Williams's subjects are any indication, disregarding happiness is becoming as unimaginable in China as it is in America. And if any one thing burdens the documentary's nine young people, it's their failure so far, despite increasing opportunities and choices, to find contentedness.
"China now is a country with no beliefs, and there are no role models," says Lu Dong, a 32-year-old who finds solace in his Christian faith and offers one of the film's rare statements about the nation as a whole. He compares China to a poor kid in a candy store, who keeps grabbing for more even after his pockets are filled. "Chinese are very hungry right now," he says, "and hard to satisfy."
Emma Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.