Review: Web Junkie (Shlam and Medalia, 2013) – Sundance 2014

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Web Junkie is situated inside a rehabilitation center(/prison/boot camp) for Chinese teenagers addicted to online gaming. As the documentary reports, China is one of the first countries in the world to label overuse of the internet as a clinical condition. The movie follows three (well, really, two) teenage males who were tricked by their families into treatment at the institution.

I was fascinated by so many aspects of this film I’m not sure which to focus on. First, the institution itself: On the one hand, Westerners like me (I consider myself a Westerner as I was born and raised in the U.S., though my family is from Taiwan) might find it mildly concerning that these children are forcibly kept in what alternately seems like a juvenile delinquency center, a military barracks, and a psychiatric ward, undergoing “brainwashing” and therapy sessions. Teenagers wear camouflage army uniforms, are responsible for keeping their bunks in neat order, participate in morning calisthenics, and sing patriotic songs in unison. On the other hand, the psychiatrists in the facility are kind, seem to genuinely care for their patients, and succeed in earning the trust of the boys.

Second, the figurehead/headmaster/chairman/whatever of the institute, Professor Tao: Unsurprisingly, many of the children the film follows declare that they hate Tao, lambasting him with their playful sarcasm. If sometimes he seems as misguided as the parents he’s trying to enlighten, and if other times the methods he uses appear both ethically and scientifically questionable, maybe much can be forgiven for his good intentions. Professor Tao is so convinced of the good that he is doing that he granted access to the directors to make this film so that they could help spread the word. I was interested to hear in the Q&A session that, upon screening this film in China, he was moved to tears.

Finally, the boys themselves: They are a raucous, defiant, incorrigible, frightening, sensitive group of kids whose cynicism belies a barely-shielded vulnerability. The camera follows the children and their parents into group and individual therapy sessions, and the trauma and dysfunction uncovered in these naked moments are enough to twist anyone’s heart. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time with young people, but I was impressed and moved to see that no matter how cold, mechanical, and unreformable these youths seemed, even the quietest of them had so much conviction and personality.

Q&A note: There were several questions about censorship and filming in China. The filmmakers said they didn’t bother getting permission from the Chinese government; apparently Tao’s permission was enough.

Acquired by Dogwoof in December 2013. BBC Storyville has secured rights to broadcast on television in the UK.