For those who regularly find themselves feeling ashamed and useless after wasting much of the day Wiki-surfing or browsing random Yelp reviews, the actual subject of the documentary Web Junkie will come as a huge relief. For one thing, it’s about Chinese teenagers, not American underachievers. For another, these kids aren’t addicted to the Internet in general, as the film’s title seems to suggest. Mostly, they’re World Of Warcraft junkies, spending every waking hour playing either that computer game or others very much like it. This has become (or at least is perceived as) such a widespread problem in China that more than 400 rehab centers now exist to treat game-obsessed teens, virtually all of whom are involuntarily committed by their families. With inmates relating stories of being tricked onto the premises with lies about a skiing vacation—or even of awakening in custody, having been drugged on the street by the facility’s employees—it’s not at all clear which is more disturbing: the addiction or the cure.
Directed by two Israeli filmmakers, Web Junkie focuses on one such center in Beijing, which operates more like a military boot camp than like a traditional detox center. (Gaming addiction is an exclusively male syndrome, apparently. If any teenage girls are in facilities like this, the movie never mentions it.) Patients live together in the equivalent of barracks, with traditional bunk beds, and are required to march in formation around the grounds and perform other physical activities. These disciplinary methods are supplemented by therapy, both individual and group; in the latter, parents confront their kids with the toll their nonstop gaming has taken on the family, generally receiving sullen hostility in reply. Some boys are clever enough to recognize that their best means of getting out quickly is to say what the adults want to hear, even making lightly sarcastic testimonials directly to the camera. Others decide to just scale the walls, though they’re caught—at an Internet cafe, playing computer games—shortly after they escape.
It’s clear that these kids have a genuine problem, and a more probing film might have questioned the cultural factors that contribute to it, as well as the efficacy of more or less kidnapping errant youths and trying to coerce them back into productivity. Web Junkie doesn’t do much probing, however. Running a scant 76 minutes, the film relies on a purely observational approach that’s better suited to the sort of mammoth, mundane institutions chronicled by Frederick Wiseman. Here, in a more constricted, hot-button context, that passivity generates only enough interesting material for a 10-minute segment on a TV newsmagazine program before starting to get repetitive. The kids are as uncommunicative as teenage boys tend to be in every country, and shots of them marching in unison or looking sadly out from behind chain-link fences are only compelling for so long. At one point, someone suggests that these boys are seeking opportunities for heroism and personal achievement that they can’t find in the real world, but this intriguing thesis is explored no further. Say what you will about video games, but at least they have multiple levels.