Wang Bing’s sharp observational style is once again emphasised in Ku Qian (Bitter Money), a documentary about China’s domestic migrants looking for jobs in small sweatshops. The film is divided into different sections, and as Bitter Money progresses, the camera floats from one person to another, without settling too much on a specific character. The stories are set in Huzhou, a town about two hours west of Shanghai, which functions as a labour nucleus for the less fortunate workers from all over the country. The director depicts the opposite of a so-called “Chinese Dream,” revealing the truth of the land’s booming economy.
Bitter Money opens with a family reunion as teenage cousins Xiao Min and Chen Yuanzhen say good-bye to their families in a Yunnan village. It’s a casual and warm environment, full of jokes, yet a red flag arises. During a conversation, it is suggested that one of the girls doesn’t have a correct birth date on her ID, a matter that doesn’t appear so uncommon. In fact, it’s not a problem that one of the girls is a minor because, as the family states, nobody would verify it or find out. Whereas in a bigger factory, the risk is higher. For the girl, the situation is provisory — a means to pay school tuition. But for other workers, the faraway work is the only option to support their families (people that will be destroyed by the distance and separation nonetheless). The girls board an a overcrowded train for their final destination, a shabby apartment, where the focus shifts to small talk with a man who confesses that he quit his job because he couldn’t endure the hard, ruthless work and toxic fumes. In Bitter Money, people are not afraid to speak their minds in front of the director, and the tough, almost unmediated reality that Wang presents is unique for Chinese cinema. Even small scams or the girls’ unorthodox problems are shared without hesitation.
Other portraits include a young man returning to his homeland after draconian, overtime work in the factories, and the alcoholic Huang Lei, who has lost everything. Yet Bitter Money is not your typical exploitation documentary. Even for Wang, whose documentaries are set mostly within industrialised environments, the setting is almost minimalist. The viewer is shown little of the working process, but rather more of daily activities that depict how little personal time these people have. The workers’ small, improvised living spaces are dirty, and the garment shops have the bare necessities. It seems like a provisional place, where people don’t come to stay or build their lives, although the dreams of many lie in the decayed, neon-lit workshops. The director shows his subjects mostly during nighttime, illuminated by streetlights, phones and tablet lights. In fact, everybody has the same ideals: to have the ultimate gadgets, to wear designer clothes. In other words — to live well by rich people standards. Bitter Money doesn’t rely on social critique or a sensational exposé of the inhumane conditions, as its finesse lies in uncovering so much with so little.
Wang’s films often depict the strength and tenacity that people need to survive in hostile environments, and Bitter Money is no different. However, this story doesn’t feel as shocking. There is little focus on the supposedly slave-like relationship between workers and bosses. However, there are some hints at the harsh conditions, tough merchandise bargaining and the merciless competition amongst the manufacturers. While some viewers may have issues with the lack of personal involvement and the director’s cold approach, the merit comes by depicting the poor life and working conditions. The film doesn’t offer any solutions, as it’s almost impossible for the subjects to exit this vicious circle without losing money.
Wang also features Xiao’s co-worker Ling Ling, a woman who experiences domestic violence and oppression. In this story, nobody censors themselves in front of the camera — everyone acts natural, including both the brutal husband and his indifferent peers. Here, the intimidating function of the camera represents a panoply: it is seen as the only factor that could stop Ling’s suffering or change the husband’s behaviour. And so, the Chinese director nearly reaches the ideal concept of depicting “reality” by keeping the right amount of distance without interfering at all, even if some people act differently while being recorded.
The editing reveals the true significance of previous footage, although the lack of conventional structure often makes the story hard to follow. The camera is hand-held, sometimes even shaky, but it helps Wang infiltrate the subjects’ homes. None of the officials ask about the subjects’ opinions, or their hopes and dreams, which makes the camera a welcomed confessor. For some, life goes on, of course, and they try to do as much that they can with the little they’re offered. They go out and party.
Bitter Money depicts a painful chapter of China’s economic rise on the backs of poor, hopeless people. There are reminders of the country’s power in Ling Ling’s fake Dior purse and millions of low-quality, inexpensive products that feed the consumerism of the Western world. However, China’s inhabitants are not far from these temptations. There are hardly any proper conditions in the Huzhou slums, yet people are more interested in owning the latest iPhone than investing in their homes. One must observe how, in Chinese society, men and women are working separately and how it’s assumed that women should undertake the domestic tasks and raise children. One of the characters declares, “Every day is work-eat-sleep. Working 12 hours is the norm.” This routine deteriorates any human being, spirits are broken. There is no future in the clutter, only hopes that cheaper laborers won’t steal their jobs. Ultimately, Bitter Money points out that accumulating money doesn’t necessarily bring wealth, and that slaving away isn’t necessarily a solution for the Chinese subjects — it’s their only option.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.