Most people these days spend the greater part of their waking lives looking and interacting with screens. As devices, apps and software continue to draw us into alternate realities, China stands as the only country in the world to classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder. Does this mean the communist country is actually more progressive than other nations? Web Junkie is a smart documentary that goes beyond technology and dives into familial relations to possibly clarify things a bit.
By remaining as observational as possible, documentary filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam seem to reveal China may not necessarily being doing things right. Somehow they got their cameras into a rehabilitation camp for young internet addicts that is a cross between a boot camp and insane asylum. Focusing on three boys who never seemed to get enough of on-line games like Warcraft, the filmmakers reveal a stunning picture of disconnect between parents and children and the State's intrusion into child-rearing.
Early in the film, Professor Tao Ran, who founded the first of these camps, arrives like a general visiting his troops. He seems sincere in eradicating what seems to be an epidemic.
"Internet addiction is a critical problem among Chinese teenagers. It has surpassed any other problem," he says in voice-over, as one of the teen's undergoes a brain scan.
The kids held here all seem cynical about their "treatment" and tend to say what the therapists want to hear so they might be released. At one point, during a classroom session, when Tao asks a class what do they think a computer is, most stand up and call it a tool. Then one of them stands up and asks Professor Tao, "If we say it's 'a toy' we won't be able to leave the center?"
The filmmakers never seem to intrude. They ask simple questions that cut to the core behaviors that make Chinese children relatable to Westerners. The film has a distant, Cinéma vérité feel, at times, but it also seems aware of the sad state of these families. After a "guard" berates an inmate to get with the program, the film enters a montage of sad faces. On the soundtrack a somber guitar melody slowly unfolds then mixes with the off-screen hollers of kids going through physical exercise. With this as a soundtrack, the camera focuses on Nicky as he recalls how he had been playing a game for four to five hours and was about to win. It was getting late and his fed-up father shut off the computer. The kid went to a window and threatened to jump, and the father yelled at him, "Why don't you kill yourself?"
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The whole idea of these Internet addiction camps may seem funny to some, but they may also feel very real and tragic. There's a sad disconnect between parents and their only children (don't forget China has that one-child policy). By remaining observational and distant, Wed Junkie brilliantly offers a perspective that will feel harrowing and unbelievable to many, while remaining honest to the "treatment" these teens must endure.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.