By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 20, 2014 at 5:08PM
The opening moments of “Web Junkies” are bewildering and surreal: we see a bunch of young Chinese boys stomping around what appear 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 the others through a metallic mesh. The boy 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, on-screen 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. This is one of those camps. And it is horrible.
Apparently most of the boys that wind up in one of these camps are either tricked or drugged. One boy said that his parents told him he was going on a ski trip in 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, there is, at the very beginning, a little footage of what Internet culture is like in China. Internet addiction is defined by spending six or more hours online for anything other than work or studying. Mostly this boils down to fantasy videogames 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 videogames on consoles in their parents 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 are set up, each with a desktop computer. Young men sit at these computers, with their headphones on, playing 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 the game for a moment that most wear adult diapers. The same psychiatrist claims that the addiction is no different than a junkie’s craving for 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 uneasy resemblance to the internment camps of World War II 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 the general attitude, of barely maintained cultural hysteria, brings to mind whenever the powers that be in America get worked up over some force corrupting the country’s 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, as when a mother hugs her child through prison-like bars (ringed in cheesy fake flowers, in at attempt to somewhat soften the harshness). The kids and parents go to group therapy too, which leads to sequences like the 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, given the Chinese laws on procreation, most of these young men are by themselves, without siblings. It’s only natural that they would reach out to others online, since many parents have trouble connecting with their children. Plus, there’s 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 it 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 the isolation ward, 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, along with nurses distributing mood-suppressive drugs to kids, at the behest of their government.
Sure, these kids have a problem (one boasts that he played videogames 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, its impact 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-]