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A generation with big plans for China

June 17, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Early in “Young & Restless in China," an ambitious "Frontline" look at several young Chinese over a four-year span, we meet Wang Xiaolei, who has a neck tattoo and a passion for rap music.

He wants to rap his way to the new prosperity being enjoyed by some -- although not all -- of his countrymen. His lyrics tell of his ambitions: "I'm a capitalist, never been on welfare

I'm smart so we'll all get rich.

Come with me man, make money, get you

Hey, it's your call."

"Young & Restless" follows Wang on his journey, popping in every year or so to gauge his progress. The same treatment is given to an Internet cafe entrepreneur, hotel proprietor, a public interest lawyer, a doctor, a marketing executive and a worker in a cellphone factory, among others. Each is trying to find happiness and success in a country that is undergoing rapid, almost dizzying economic and cultural change.

The format seems solid enough, but the result is a disappointment. At two hours, the effort seems overly long. By jumping from one person to another, focus is lost. Less would definitely have been more.

Maybe the problem is the length of time it took the filmmakers to get their product on the air. In the intervening years, particularly in the run-up to the Olympic Games, a lot has been written and broadcast about China's explosive growth and the restless energy of its young population. As a result, "Young & Restless" lacks a certain freshness.

Still, for viewers who bring an interest in the topic and enough patience to sit through the slow-moving parts, the documentary will deliver some interesting goods, including a close-up look at some of the social problems confronting the leaders in Beijing as the country rushes into the future.

Even as high-rises spring up, millions huddle in inadequate housing (including Wang). And millions have been left without medical insurance as industries have shifted from state control to private ownership.

One of the more compelling figures is Zhang Yao, the doctor. He agonizes about poor families who spend money in a futile effort to save a dying loved one. "In cases like that, I think we should do our best to save the family's resources," he said.

And then there is Yang Haiyan, who left her village to take a job in a city to help support her family. She returns to help her family with the rice harvest. Her mother was kidnapped 18 years earlier by human traffickers, and shame lingers over the family. Yang's quest to find her missing mother may be the emotional high point of "Young & Restless."

At the conclusion, the filmmakers bring together several of their subjects to discuss where they've been. The rapper Wang, despite some knocks, still has his dreams -- the language is Chinese, the sentiments universal: "I firmly believe that if you work hard, your dream will come true," he said. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."



'Frontline: Young & Restless in China'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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