Open City Documentary Festival review
Director: Wang Bing
Wang Bing, one of China’s most prolific documentarians, continues to relentlessly lay bare the reality of contemporary China; something that state-endorsed blockbusters try arduously to avoid. Filmed in Huzhou between 2014 and 2016, Bitter Money is rough and unpolished often with sub-par visuals and audio. In line with his observational documentary style, there is practically no intervention on the part of the filmmaker, even in the face of violence. The film explores China’s manufacturing industry and the migrant workers that make it possible, making it an addition to the recent array of films dealing with similar themes. Both in other docs, such as Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s Complicit or Wen Hai’s We the Workers, and in ‘fictional’ features, such as Zhang Wei’s Factory Boss or even Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, the topic has not gone unnoticed. This continuity is a testament to the far-reach of the ‘Made in China’ impact and the depth of stories stemming from it.
Money, the principal driving force of the film’s subjects, receives its titular bitterness from its ability to obscure life’s pleasures. Other than the items being manufactured day after day, commodities barely play a supporting role. After all, the ‘slave to the wage’ mentality found in the film is influenced by the need to sustain rather than to indulge. Migrant workers toil to send money back to their families in far-away villages. Sadly, for most people this is an almost lifelong pursuit.
At over two and a half hours, the film manages to draw its audience in to the everyday grind as experienced by its key subjects. Monotony is almost a character; both the film’s antagonist and its lead. In one of the film’s most difficult scenes, a bystander is watching a man abuse his wife and comments that the man only does so because he has nothing else to do. While this logic is clearly ridiculous, the idea that monotony can negatively impact people’s actions is not. Everyday life forms the film’s core as it drifts in and out of the experiences of a handful of migrant workers. It certainly raises awareness of the difficulty and mundanity of such manufacturing work, but it seems uninterested in exploring any real character depth. We are aware that their lives are unhappy, but we remain ignorant of what form their ideal pursuit of happiness would take.
Nonetheless, the individuals in the film deserve our attention. With 12-hour work days spent toiling over monotonous manufacturing, living in cramped dormitories, and all the while dealing with the solitude of often being miles away from home, they are in quite dire circumstances. While they do not seem accustomed to moaning, the ease with which the film’s subjects talk to camera implies that their venting was much needed. Yet, their apparent resigned understanding may indicate what should always be kept in mind: there is always someone worse off.
With sobering realism, one worker declares that salt tastes like salt everywhere in the world, and, likewise, work tastes like work. Whether this can even be deemed cynical is questionable, as the harsh reality of work-life in contemporary China is that it is tough and often quite unrewarded. Unlike other documentaries dealing with similar issues, Bitter Money is comparatively unsympathetic and provides only a surface value study of the trials and tribulations of migrant workers. Its unmeddling style allows for directness and honesty to be its strong points, while it’s weak point hangs on the question of whether or not it actually adds any depth to a subject that has been long exposed.