Shen Jie’s powerful documentary Little Proletarian begins with 14-year-old Hai’er being subjected to a vicious beating from his remorseless father, while his mother watches silently in the background. The events that follow do not negate any sympathy that one might feel towards the impoverished Hai’er based on his introduction as a victim of domestic abuse, but certainly make him an example of the nihilism that is sweeping China’s rural areas as the nation’s income gap further widens. Filmed over two months in the director’s native Guizhou Province, Little Proletarian adopts a neorealist approach with Hai’er proving to be a compelling center with his combination of brazen attitude and unruly behavior. For those unfamiliar with the documentary’s geographic terrain, some quick research into Guizhou is perhaps necessary to set the scene: a mountainous southwest province, it has not benefitted from China’s economic acceleration with various state initiatives intended to address unemployment in the region having little impact.
Branded a “good for nothing” by his father, Hai’er is one of many teenagers who have been discarded by the system, having been expelled from school for smoking cigarettes and left to spend his days hanging around with fellow rebels, whose social position is an inevitability rather than a choice given the lack of opportunities in their village. However, Hai’er believes that he can have his piece of China’s economic action by relocating to the big city to become a “boss” by establishing a gambling operation. Despite his relatively young age, Hai’er already smokes and drinks, while his activities around the town have attracted the attention of the police. Admittedly, his rambunctious spirit and spiky sense of humor make him a rather charismatic delinquent, but any potential is being squandered through early life choices that are taking him down the road to nowhere.
This limited world is largely defined by boredom and violence, with riding around the countryside on motorcycles serving as a respite from both. Whether observing Hai’er with his crew at the local hair salon or chronicling his volatile home life, Shen keeps his camera stationary as arguments erupt or conversations simply peter out, holding focus on Hai’er for long enough that he captures not only the vulnerability but also the genuine tenacity lies beneath his outsider posturing. A sense of violence permeates throughout – aside from the beatings that Hai’er receives from his father, he in turn gets into brawls with other youths. There is also much juvenile taunting, blaring dance music, and the constant revving of motorcycle engines, sounds which collectively suggest barely-suppressed social frustration.
Although it is primarily a study of wayward youth, Shen’s documentary also serves as a regional portrait. Unable to receive guidance at home or through education, Hai’er hits the streets to seek advice from older citizens who have committed crimes and even done the time, pointing to the cyclical nature of the area’s social problems. One gives advice on how to survive in prison, as if everyone ends up there at some juncture in their life, while another tells Hai’er that he should be somebody or nobody, as there is no point in ending up somewhere in-between. It soon becomes apparent that, if he makes it to adulthood, Hai’er will be the one dispensing ‘wisdom’ to the next generation of tearaways.
While even some of the most fascinating independent documentaries to emerge from China’s digital underground have a tendency to be somewhat unwieldy, as their directors wrestle their socially revealing footage into a workable structure, Little Proletarian benefits from a lean editing style that perfectly suits its subject’s existential path. Undeniably bleak but riddled with bursts of unhinged energy and mischievous exuberance, this is a searing record of rural youth in revolt.