By Drew Taylor | The Playlist August 6, 2014 at 7:34PM
The opening moments of “Web Junkies” are surreal: we see a bunch of young Chinese boys stomping around what looks to be military barracks. A title card says that this is the Daxing Boot Camp, in a suburb of Beijing. The camera focuses in on one young boy, still in his room, looking out at his peers through a metallic mesh. He is sobbing. Someone asks one of the boys what they did to get to this place, and the boy responds, “I used the Internet.” A few moments later, onscreen text reveals that China is the first country in the world to recognize Internet addiction as a national health crisis, with the government setting up more than 400 “rehabilitation camps” for Chinese youth.
Apparently most of the boys that wind up in these camps are either tricked or drugged. One boy said that his parents told him he was going on a ski trip to Russia, while another says that he was drugged and woke up at the camp. If the documentary has a main character, it’s Hope, a 16-year-old with a wild shock of jet-black hair, whose abusive father tricked him into going to the camp. When forced to do exercises outside, Hope can barely bring himself to lift his legs or raise his arms.
While almost the entire documentary is set at the Daxing Camp, 'Web Junkies' spends a little time at its outset describing what Internet culture is like in China. Internet addiction is defined in China as spending six or more hours online for anything other than work or studying. Mostly this boils down to fantasy video games or massive online communities (several boys in the documentary admit to preferring the “virtual world” over the “real world”). And unlike in America, where teenagers play video games on consoles in their parent's basement or on their laptop computers, in China, massive internet “cafés,” that look more like industrial warehouses, dot the landscape.
In these cafes, rows and rows of tables sit side by side, each with a desktop computer. Young men sit at these computers, with their headphones on, for hours. Some go in after school and don’t emerge until the next day. A psychiatrist at the camp says that the kids are so concerned about leaving a game for a moment that most wear adult diapers. The same psychiatrist claims that the addiction is no different than a junkie craving drugs. “That’s why we call it electric heroin,” the psychiatrist says gravely.
It seems outrageous that these kids would be placed in camps like this, which bear an unnerving resemblance to the World War II-era internment camps in which Americans of Japanese descent were "detained," especially since under similar guidelines, most of the United States would have been locked away in the week following the release of “Grand Theft Auto V” (or whatever “Call of Duty” game is out this year). And an air of volcanic cultural hysteria brings to mind instances in American life when parents, civic groups or one municipal authority or other gets worked up over some force corrupting the youth, whether it be rock’n’roll or comic books or extra-large sodas.
What makes the Daxing Camp different in the grand scale of these rehabilitation centers is that the parents of the kids are given the option of staying with their children. This gives way to some of the movie’s most wrenching scenes, such as in a scene finding a mother hugging her child through prison-like bars (ringed in cheesy fake flowers, in at attempt to soften the harshness). The kids and parents go to group therapy, leading to sequences like one where a father admits to regularly beating his child, and another where a different child threatens the father with a metal stool.
It’s in these interactions where you get a greater understanding of the cultural context of Internet addiction. One mother sobs as she recounts the tale of waiting for her child outside of an Internet café, watching the kids leave and looking for her young boy. Another mother sympathizes since most of these young men have no siblings, having been conceived and born during the time when most Chinese families were prohibited from having more than one child. It’s only natural that they would reach out to others online, since many parents have trouble connecting with their children. There’s also the fact that they are, after all, teenagers, and if a teenager isn’t fantasizing about beating one of his parents to death with a metal stool, he’s doing teenager-hood wrong.
Throughout the movie, documentarians Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia follow Hope. At one point he stages a daring escape and is caught a few hours later at a local Internet café. It’s after the escape that he’s sentenced to ten days in isolation, where he’s not able to even keep a pen to jot down his thoughts. When he comes out, he’s broken; his eyes have become dull and he’s fallen in line with what the nurses and the psychiatrists have told him all along. It’s one of the more chilling moments in the film, alongside passages finding nurses distributing mood-suppressive drugs to kids, at the behest of their government.
Sure, these kids have a problem (one boasts that he played video games for 300 hours), but this surely isn’t the answer. The specificity of the documentary, staying within the walls of the boot camp for virtually the entire movie, is one of its biggest strengths since it is able to place you right alongside these kids. If the scope had been broadened, the impact of 'Web Junkies' would have most likely been lessened. But it also has the effect of being even more heartbreaking, since you’re left to wonder if there’s anyone on the outside fighting for these kids to be released. The culture is often portrayed as lacking in sentiment (when the parents go to take their kids home, a security guard yells, “Parents hug your children”), so it’s amazing that a documentary about that culture is so rich and emotionally rewarding. If only it didn’t have such a lousy title. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.