BITTER MONEY (Ku Qian) C+
Hong Kong France (152 mi) 2016 d: Wang Bing
This is what it’s like when you work far from home.
Following 2016 Top Ten List #6 'Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng Ai) (2013), with minimal budget and just a two or three-man crew, this is a rather sprawling work for a documentary, a gloomy portrait of a nationwide search for dead end jobs, yet a film that offers plenty of insights into the horrific working conditions in the Chinese textile business, but provides few answers, becoming a corrosive exposé of capitalism, as a country born in socialist economic equalization where everyone was supposedly equal suddenly comes to grips with the hardships of converting to an open market society, where everyone dreams of becoming rich, as workers are led to believe if they work hard they can make something of themselves. Using only a camera to observe their efforts, what they discover is a demoralizing bleak reality where work is dull, hours are long, and pay is meager, as there aren’t enough hours in the day to actually make any money, feeling as though they’re caught in a pyramid scheme where only those at the top become rich, while all the rest are forced to fight for the remaining few scraps, subject to working 12 or 13 hours a day under grueling sweatshop working conditions with few breaks and no safety regulations in place, with foremen constantly asking them to work faster, getting fired if they don’t. What this amounts to is every man or woman for themselves, as each is pitted against economically strapped bosses whose only interest is making money, where workers are little more than replaceable parts. Few work regular hours, as they’re forced to work beyond a breaking point, so people work a few days and then quit, endlessly wandering in search of something better, but the same pattern repeats itself, making them mercenary workers for troubled times leading a solitary and nomadic existence. Focusing on a few individuals who disappear as quickly as they appear, the migration pattern forces people from rural countryside areas into the cities seeking work opportunities, forced to live in dilapidated housing conditions, often provided by the employer, which resemble dormitory rooms with no doors, with no concept of privacy. With barely any time to sleep, the pattern is the same, work, eat, and sleep, until you get fired or you can’t take it anymore. It’s a demanding process, as Wang provides no narration, but expects viewers to sift through the raw footage, which comes across like authoritative reference material, with viewers coming away with a better understanding than they had before.
Allowing scenes to play out at length, mostly what viewers pick up is from the incessant back and forth conversations among the workers during down time. Occasionally it continues while working, with pop songs loudly playing over the whirr of sewing machines, where there’s no dress code, as men are seen working shirtless, likely under oppressively hot temperatures, repeating the same motions over and over again, accumulating piles at their work stations, growing weary from the monotony. With a camera focusing its attention on just a few individuals, featuring smaller workshops rather than larger factories, a collective portrait emerges offering a fairly comprehensive view of those at the lower rungs of the ladder in Chinese society, where it would be difficult to place ourselves in their position. The concept of unions doesn’t exist there, so there is no one looking out for the worker’s interests, no expectations for improvements, suggesting child labor is routine, where there’s little hope for the future. Shot over a period of two years in Huzhou, a budding urban metropolis just two hours west of Shanghai, where most of the part-time jobs are, considered the center of Chinese economic development, where most employers are small bosses who are themselves frequently in trouble, as the people they do business with often shortchange them, causing cash flow problems where many are routinely owed money. Since this is built into the system, cheating, underpaying, or exploiting those at the lowest end is typical, forced to lead marginal lives where they can barely survive. This becomes evident not just to viewers, but to the workers themselves, who grow easily frustrated, often giving up and returning home to a more normal, less anxious-ridden life. At least with family, everyone’s in it together, but out on their own, this solitary existence is a pathetic and meaningless struggle, not at all what they envisioned at the outset, thinking hard work would pay off. While there are volcanic changes taking place in China, this film offers a merciless view of a pitiless existence for the poor, where lonely downtime on everpresent smartphones offer their only connection to an outside world that remains outside their grasp, doomed to a life of futility.
What’s surprisingly missing is any discussion of education, as the poor remain the most uneducated. At least in the West, there is a belief that the more education you receive, the better your prospects become in the job market. This concept is altogether missing in Wang’s film, which only makes the continuing cycle of poverty more distressing, as what hope do they have that things will improve? At the outset of the film we see families lying about the age of their children so they can receive government issued ID cards for work, despite being under-aged, thinking this is the best option for the family, who then sends them on a long and arduous train journey into the cities looking for work. If they realized ahead of time that this was a sweatshop job opportunity, with little to be gained, perhaps these teenage kids would be better served by staying in school. What we don’t see is the economic deprivation in the heartland where there are no economic opportunities anywhere, where the cities, by contrast, are bursting with opportunities, just none that pay well for the uneducated, who will remain exploited until they receive a better education. Therein lies the real problem, as rural families are in such desperate straits. Sending their under-aged kids with a misguided hint of hope is a sign of that desperation. That may actually be a larger story than the one documented in this film, but remains unexplored. Some of this may simply be the style of the filmmaker, who is not an essayist offering various points of view, but limits his films to the world that exists, with his camera capturing the people living in it, allowing viewers to project their own thoughts about what it means. Surprisingly, the film won the Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival, which is unusual for a film with no written screenplay whatsoever. There is a single scene that stands out in this film, a heated argument in an open air shop between a husband and wife that goes on for about fifteen minutes, shot with no breaks, where the husband’s intensity reaches life-threatening proportions, grabbing her by the throat, threatening to kill her several times. This all spills out onto the streets, where a dozen or so bystanders observe, but none intervene. Instead there is a family friend that attempts unsuccessfully to mediate the crisis. Viewers never learn what specifically caused this episode, though apparently she asked him for some money (suggesting money is the root of all evil), with the husband flying off the handle, boasting how many times in a week they fight, as if this takes the place of sex in their relationship, without which their lives would have no meaning, introducing domestic violence as yet another form of exploitation, with the abusive husband hoarding all the money. There’s a curious moment when she turns to the cameraman (Wang Bing) and speaks directly to him, “Come on, let’s go to my sister’s. Follow me.” It’s a rare moment of stark honesty, an apparent break in the movie, where a glimpse of real-life seeps in, but there’s no hint of rescue from this dire portrait of forgotten lives and broken spirits.