At Daxing Boot Camp outside Beijing, teenage boys in camouflage fatigues file sluggishly into a giant gray barracks, where the day’s regimen may include being locked in a room for the sole purpose of crying, being fed dubious antipsychotic pills, and, if they’re lucky, a bit of conversational therapy. The Chinese government, we learn, has made Internet addiction a national health priority, and the solution is an open-ended stint at Daxing, a “rehabilitation facility” that looks and feels remarkably like a gulag. At least, that’s the atmosphere suggested by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s Web Junkie, which takes place entirely within Daxing’s halls and bundles the inmates’ claustrophobia with the audience’s own. Parents tend to enroll their kids by tricking them into admittance, and in one heartbreaking scene, a 16-year-old named Hope begs his parents over the phone to take him back, on the condition that he’ll only use the Internet for four hours a day, tops. (They don’t listen.) Shlam and Medalia take pains to capture footage of parents’ group-therapy sessions as well, making the issue multi-generational and clouding the official party line that allows all “rehabilitation” to proceed.
Shlam and Medalia choose to approach their titular subject exclusively through the prism of Daxing’s macho, military-obsessed culture. This means Web Junkie is either a missed opportunity (despite the filmmakers’ jaw-dropping access) or it’s a bit of willful misdirection: Come for the Internet addiction, stay in awe of the totalitarianism! Without a frame of footage nor a single interview presented from outside the camp, the documentary shows a capitalist nightmare that accords its victims—who are, essentially, the same bored, World of Warcraft-obsessed kids we have here in the States—zero wiggle room. Hope’s wailing is diagnosed as a symptom of his addiction, but it’s more obviously a result of the camp’s isolation and loneliness. Like Zhao Liang’s police doc Crime and Punishment, Web Junkie’s formal shortcomings—Including clumsily deployed ’80s electric guitar, and unimaginative camera setups—shrivel next to its considerable powers of suggestion. When one of the camp’s guiding shrinks tells a room full of parents that their children are addicted to online games because “they can’t experience satisfaction and heroism in real life,” the film can’t help but invite comparison to the child-coddling excess of American culture, while capturing the opposite scenario in excruciating detail.