There’s a scene in Wasted Orient, a documentary about a Chinese punk band, where the singer is having a laugh with his band mates when suddenly he stands up, leans over a rail, and pukes his guts out. The camera moves in for a close-up of him heaving. When he stops, it pans down to show a pool of liquid and half-digested noodles. “This is beef noodles,” he says, laughing. Next scene: The band, obviously inebriated, playing a show, its young audience chanting, “We want beer! We want beer! We want beer!”
Filmmaker Kevin Fritz chose to film the band Joyside — a group of apathetic, binge-drinking youths if there ever was one — because he wanted to make a documentary showing what he believes is the real China. Not the China of gleaming skyscrapers and astonishing economic growth that’s romanticized in the mainstream media, but the China he inhabits: a place where there’re frequent power outages; where his computer is made from counterfeit hardware and it is impossible to find software that isn’t pirated; and where most young people, according to Fritz, are deeply unhappy.
“I always wanted to do a documentary to show China as it actually is, not how people with political and business aspirations hope it to be,” he says by phone from Beijing on Wednesday. “People are a little bit more confident and honest when they’ve had a little bit” to drink, “so I felt they (Joyside) would be the most forthright people to explain China to a foreign audience.”
“I didn’t try to make anything overly intelligent. All I wanted to do is make a simple film and have something be honest. And basically tell all these other journalists — I’m not a journalist, I consider myself film editor — that this is a big middle finger to all of them because they make out China to be something that it’s not,” he says.
Wasted Youth follows Joyside on its first national tour, through gritty clubs and grittier cities. In most scenes, it seems, band members are either getting drunk or talking about how life sucks. When they sing, it’s about how they want beer and sex or about how life sucks. Joyside’s binge-drinking and apathy are so extreme that the band is a parody of itself, and the viewer gets the impression that they’re mugging for the camera.
According to Fritz, they weren’t. “They all acted the same as they did if the camera wasn’t on,” he says. “That’s the point right there: They’re trying to do their best and make rock ’n’ roll part of this society, but it fails over and over again for any number of reasons, the obvious ones I can’t go into [on the phone from China with a reporter in Taiwan].”
Fritz got his start as a filmmaker editing tractor maintenance videos. He applied for an overseas scholarship as a joke and ended up at Peking University. He met Joyside in 2003 and filmed the documentary in 2005 and 2006. Wasted Orient won the 2007 New Haven Underground Film Festival Best Picture award.
As a subject representing modern China, “I think they (Joyside) were great,” he says. “These guys can be quite gloomy.” Despite outward appearances, “I think there’s a lot of people [in China] who are very unhappy here. But I don’t think my film does justice to that feeling, because it might get me in trouble [with the government]. I only hint at it. I think it’s depressing.”
For Fritz, one of the film’s key scenes comes after the “I want beer” concert. Joyside’s former guitarist, who is Japanese, is standing on a bridge at night, smoking cigarettes, sipping on a tall bottle of beer, and talking in Mandarin about the state of Chinese rock ’n’ roll.