The best kinds of films transport you directly into the world of its characters and Plastic China does that right from the get-go with children playing in a tunnel of plastic scraps and rummaging through vast piles of recycled waste in the opening scene.
What’s even more disturbing is that it’s not just any waste. It’s our waste — from the West. There are pet food bags to water bottles and an assortment of plastic wrappings. You name it, it’s there.
The families that live and work on the plant are not only surrounded by waste, but they use the recycled plastic as fuel to cook their meals and they wash in the same murky water littered with plastic scraps. There’s no two ways about it, it’s pretty damn grim.
Set in China’s coastal province of Shandong the story follows two families who live and work on the plastic processing plant, which is one of 5,000 in the same region.
Owner, Kun, runs the business but makes little money to sustain his family. He lives on the property with his mother, his wife and their son. But while their house is adequate, electricity bills to run the plant are excessive and the by-product pellets that he produces are being sold in an overloaded market. Formerly a farmer, Kun wants the best for his son (pictured) and he is set on making sure that his little boy gets an education to improve his future.
Meanwhile, Peng has been working on the plant for the past four years along with his wife who is now pregnant with their fifth child. Three of the four children work alongside them, but despite the additional hands on deck, Peng only earns six dollars a day which limits his family’s desire to return to Sichuan. Back home they have land, animals and a free education. Unlike their current situation where the family can’t afford to send their children to school.
Another problem is that Peng’s earnings also go towards cigarettes and alcohol. Deep down he wishes he could provide more for his growing family, but his own lack of education and little self worth means that his children are stuck on the recycling plant with prospect of the same bleak future.
The children on the plant have a way of integrating hard work with a bit of fun. They wade through new loads of recycling looking for treasures and find unwanted bath toys, hair accessories and magazines. Peng’s oldest daughter Yi Jie collects the magazines and cuts out pictures of shoes that she dreams of owning. The story follows her closely. And she’s torn between family obligation and a desire to have an education.
The kids are inventive and clever and you can’t help but wonder what their lives would be like should they have access to everything that we in the privileged West take for granted.
Director Jiu-Liang Wang develops a natural rapport and trust with the children, giving them a chance to shine. We largely see life through their eyes and the way that they interact and play. They make do with what they have — all the while dreaming of what life would be like beyond the plastic wasteland before them.