Sundance Review: 'Web Junkie' explores Internet addiction in China
Since we're all probably web junkies, this doc is pretty universal
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Everybody has their Sundance Film Festival goals, whether it's to see all of the eventual Jury winners or to see all of the eventual Oscar nominees or just to make sure that you've never missed a single cinematic second of Brit Marling or Elizabeth Olsen.
This year, I have a much more restrained goal: I just want to complete the documentary trifecta I'm going to call The Oy Vey The Internet Is Freaky Trilogy.
It's a slate that includes the open access tragedy "The Internet's Own Boy," the South Korean online gaming horror story "Love Child" and the Chinese cautionary tale "Web Junkie." It's a subject matter that isn't new to Sundance, what with "Wikileaks" and "Google and the World Brain" premiering here just last year, but when the original 2014 Festival schedule was first announced, it was the first trend I was going to isolate as being on the verge of a Park City explosion.
The first of the three documentaries on my docket is Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia's internationally diverse China-set, Israeli-American co-production playing here in the World Documentary Competition.
At a only-slightly-too-brisk 75 minutes, "Web Junkie" is, on its surface, a harrowing look at a seemingly ordinary behavior taken to extremes and the stifling culture going to equal extremes to combat it. Looking very close below the surface, though, "Web Junkie" isn't such a foreign tale at all. It's about a generational clash that repeats itself over and over across the decades and also across international boundaries.
The narrative transition from alien to universal is what will likely help "Web Junkie" find an audience, but at times I felt it went too much for relatability at the expense of some of the things that make the story unique.
More after the break...
The musical philosopher Lee Adams once had a character opine, "Kids, I don't know what's wrong with this kids today. Kids, who could guess that they would turn out that way? Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? What's the matter with kids?"
Same as it ever was.
In "Bye Bye Birdie," the cultural scourge is rock-n-roll, changing the vernacular and rendering parents incapable of communicating with their children once they reach a certain age. In "The Music Man," a similar kerfuffle brews over a pool table and the trouble it brings to River City. In "Reefer Madness," kids were perfect angels until marijuana made them into slattern hooligans.
Parents fear their kids just as they once scared their own parents, because there's always something new that parents just don't understand, something new that gives kids a confusing vitality, something new that shifts the power dynamic.
The idea that computers and the Internet were making teens into dead-eyed keyboard monkeys isn't a new one. I point you no further than "Hackers," which seemed ludicrous when it premiered, but now offers a very strange mixture of datedness and day-glo prescience. "Hacklers" made life lost in cyberspace look ridiculous, but thanks to Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, it also made it look sexy as hell.
"Web Junkie" goes a different way. Nobody will accuse this documentary of making its subject matter look sexy.
China, you see, is the first country to label "Internet addiction" as a clinical disorder and it has been identified as a top public health threat to the nation's teenage population.
At the Chinese Teenagers Mental Growth Center, one of the more than 400 Rehab camps for Internet Addiction Disorder, young men are checked in by their parents, usually through some form of subterfuge. They're forced to live in bunks in tight quarters where they're subject to routine searches and military discipline. They wear fatigues and the march in formation and, for the dozens of pudgy, socially awkward male teens, it looks like a bit of a nightmare. To me, a week or two fully disconnected from my blog, being served what looked like rather terrific food -- lots of steamed buns and rice dishes and bowls of what I'm assuming was miso soup -- at every meal sounds terrific, but that may be a sign that I'm a different sort of addict.
And what kind of addicts are these? Well, they're almost all addicted to online gaming and, I'm not gonna lie, it definitely sounds like they could probably use a little time away. The basic definition we're given is that addicts spend six hours online daily outside of work and school. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Some of these users are a bit more involved than that. One boasts of the 10 hours of daily World of Warcraft that he plays. One kid says 300 hours is his longest time online gaming, nearly consecutive, with only nap breaks. Another kid counters he played for two straight months one summer. Another kid admits that he spent $8500 playing one particular game.
To an man, though, these figures are delivered with great pride. And, to an man, they all disagree that they belong in any sort of treatment facility. Perhaps that's part of the purpose, though, because these are kids who admit that they have very few friends outside of the online world. They may not be pleased to be where they are, but at least they're talking to other people, even if they can't always look each other in the eye.
The treatment ranges from banal -- lectures, relearning of basic hygiene skills, chores -- to the baffling -- kids have to undergo a 20-minute process in elaborate headgear made of rubber tubing and sensors. Is the goal recovery? Cure? Brainwashing? Rehabilitation? You won't be shocked that the adults take the more charitable guesses, while the kids assume the worst.
Shlam and Medalia helpfully focus on three or four specific kids and they're able to use those kids to explore what is perhaps the most intriguing thing about this Center, namely its joint treatment with the parents. Through long counseling sessions, we get to see the strained generational relationships and, sometimes, relationships that are worse than strained. Here, the directors are able to accentuate a mixture of universal elements, but also the things that may be culturally unique to China.
There's an interesting shifting of sympathies that plays out through the documentary and will probably vary by viewing age. Early on, the kids seem like victims and Professor Tao Ran, the head of the clinic, seems like a dictatorial huckster, curing a disease that doesn't exist, but then he starts seem sensible and you begin thinking he might actually care. You watch the kids and you're certain that they're victims of repressive parenting, but then you see the social skills they've lost at the beginning and you see how much more connected they seem to other people as they go along. All the while, you wonder how much they're playing a role of "reformed" or "cured," how much they're treating this whole experience as a video game and just hoping to satisfy the requirements and level up. You hate the parents and fear the parents for behaviors that are probably abusive by Western standards, but then you wonder how much we're entitled to read our cultural values onto the things that are happening here, how much our values are actually messing with our understanding of this entire system. You realize, in some cases, that the parents are putting in effort as well, that this was an act of last recourse, that they're breaking from societal norms just to admit this problem exists and they have a part in it. But just as soon as you sway too much towards sympathy, you see parents who are pretty much monsters looking only to clip their kids' wings.
And, on a micro level, "Web Junkie" goes a persuasive job of showing that no matter where you go and no matter what country you're in, the language that fuels paranoid fears of juvenile delinquency is always the same. When a father says, "I've been supporting you for 16 years, have you ever done anything for us?" to his son, it could be an accusation at the heart of any generational conflict, ditto with the son who pouts to his father, "At home, I feel I don't exist." It really hardly matters whether what's tearing these families apart is a biker gang, the jitter-bug, heroin or World of Warcraft. A counselor says ""Distrust is the origin of despair" and she could be providing a scrawled Trapper-Keeper motto for every teenager ever.
It was on the macro level that I wanted more. I would have loved a sense of why China is the only country to take this step and perhaps gotten some sort of advanced details on whether or not Internet usage among Chinese teens actually is appreciably different from among their Japanese or American or Belgian counterparts. I have a hard time just accepting, "China is a stricter culture," without any corroboration. At one counseling session, a father mentions that the problem comes from kids growing up without siblings, which really did illuminate a culturally specific lightbulb in my brain, but again I couldn't judge that without some deeper exploration. Out of 400+ clinics for Internet addiction, are there girls who are addicted? In this movie, it's only boys. Are there addictions to behaviors other than gaming? Porn? Fantasy football? I don't know. And what the heck was up with that insane hat? Was it something Clockwork Orange-y? Or Cronenbergian? Or worse?
Part of the limitation is that "Web Junkie" largely takes an observational approach, but it isn't purely observational. Professor Tao Ran talks to the camera and answers questions. Some of the kids talk to the camera and answered questions. But, darnit, they answered only some of the questions I had.
Mostly, I wanted fact-based answers. I didn't want, and was glad not to have, the filmmakers putting their fingers on the moral scale. I liked not having a clear answer on whether or not these clinics are doing valuable work on whether or not this is a real problem. Yes, this is a lot Orwellian and that's worth being scared of, but this is a new thing. Maybe the Chinese are right! Maybe the Internet really is rotting my brain. But I'm happy to at least make my own guesses as to whether it's a disorder or an illness or whether one smart kid is right when he says, "It's not a real disease. It's a social phenomenon."
"Web Junkie" is a little sad, a little funny and a little scary. I'd say that I wish it had been a little more provocative, but I'm sure conversations after screenings will serve some of that purpose and those are conversations worth having.