We joke about Internet addiction in the West. We lovingly called our BlackBerrys “CrackBerrys” when we still used BlackBerrys. We make movies about literally falling in love with our smartphones. But outside of the chronic obsessions with online pornography, we don’t really think of constant Internet usage — the perpetual checking of email and social media and the dependence on the web for everything — as an actual addiction. Over in China, they do. Internet addiction is not only officially recognized as a clinical disorder there, but the Chinese government also has set up rehab centers for its treatment around the country.
In Web Junkie, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam and executive produced by Morgan Spurlock, we’re invited into one of these rehabs, specifically the Daxing Bootcamp outside of Beijing that is run as part of a local military hospital. This one is exclusively for teenagers, boys who are primarily if not solely addicted to online gaming and whose parents voluntarily have had them admitted as a last resort. Many of them high school dropouts or expelled or truant students, they spend all hours of the night plugged in at Internet cafes. Some of them only have friends in the virtual world. At least one mentions having a girlfriend — an online girlfriend, that is.
Now they’re thrown together into this, well, basically it’s a prison complete with barred windows and solitary confinement quarters, and the social interactions between the kids, possibly rare situations for them, make up the more interesting scenes in the film. They laugh at each other’s real world experiences while competitively boasting about their longest consecutive gaming session yet also complaining about being there, not seeing their “problem” as a problem at all. When it’s not just the boys, they’re simply normal brooding teenagers around the staff, except for a few who exhibit extreme issues with anger management.
Some of their treatment involves group sessions with their parents in attendance, and in these scenes we’re apt to get angry at particularly the fathers, all of whom are apparently negligent, some admitting to being abusive. Shouldn’t they be the ones locked up for a few months instead? Medalia and Shlam do raise the question of blame yet never give us an indication that these kids aren’t in fact in need of help. Maybe just some other kind, not military-style behavior modification. One notable point that is just barely mentioned, though, indicates China’s problem with young Internet addicts might stem from the country’s one-child policy, because only children are lonely and if the parents aren’t available enough then the online world functions as an easy surrogate family.
As a mainly observational film, Web Junkie falters in its lack of details about the disorder, what it constitutes beyond gaming if anything, the principals of treatment and so much more. That could be excused by the style, but there are ways of showing us more of what goes on at Daxing that properly substitutes for the exclusion of expository interviews. We need to see more of the therapy, for instance, especially more of the doctors’ role. Moments of confrontation between sons and fathers are dramatic stuff, but is that the gist of this counseling, and is the counseling the gist of the cure?
The doc plays mostly as a nonfiction prison or prison camp movie, and there is a main character, named Hope, who is basically the Cool Hand Luke or Sgt. Sefton of the bunch — break-out escape incident included. It’s the defiance and implied societal cause that come across as worth addressing. But to quote a line from the former character’s classic film, what it’s got is a failure to communicate. Why is this is an important issue, whether the addiction or the way it’s treated, and how precisely is this film meaning to address it?
Web Junkie is an occasionally stirring peek into a place and phenomenon that’s only slightly hard to believe exists (and isn’t anywhere near as bad as our own rehab camps for things no longer deemed clinical disorders — namely homosexuality and gender identity), but that’s as good as it gets. I never got the impression we’re supposed to care about the subjects nor about what happens to them next, and for this kind of film that is a fundamental failure.
I’d love to know if any of China’s own documentarians have covered the issue of Internet addiction and/or these rehabs, as that film might be even less informative but would provide a much better sense of what it was like to be there. If not, someone please propose that, say, Zhao Liang drop in on Daxing, because it’d be great to see a film like Crime and Punishment done on the place.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2014.