prior to the Ming Dynastic Era, Huzhou was known as a center of the silk trade
and for the production of ink brushes. Somewhat logically, it is now a regional
hub of the Chinese textile industry, but that does not necessarily make it a
fun place to live and work—quite the contrary, in fact. Wang Bing documents the
hardscrabble lives of a number of migrant workers laboring away in Huzhou’s
sweatshop-like workshops in Bitter Money, which
screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.
is more “reality” in Wang Bing’s body of work than the entire reality television
genre, in toto. Yet, Bitter Money could
almost be considered his Real World,
given how much of it is confined to the dilapidated dormitory provided by the
workshop owner for his employees. Initially, we meet two teen cousins as they
take the long rail passage from Yunnan to Huzhou in search of work, but Wang
will only follow them for so long. Like Linklater’s Slacker, he will hop from one textile worker to another that might
happen to cross their paths. It looks random, but he seems to have inside info
telling him when to jump. As a result, he captures a nasty confrontation
between twenty-five-year-old Ling Ling and her defiantly unsupportive (and
physically violent) husband Erzi.
far, Ling Ling and Erzi represents the most extreme case in Bitter Money. Most of the dormitory
residents are reasonably healthy, undeniably hardworking, and in some instances
maybe even somewhat happy. Two teenage sisters certainly look and sound like
teens you might meet anywhere else in the world, but it is a shame they aren’t
in high school, where they could better enjoy gossiping about boys. However, hard-drinking
Huang Lei is another hard case. Whether the boss’s refusal to pay him until he
sobers up is protective or exploitative is a highly debatable question.
there is more such ambiguity in Bitter
Money than most of Wang’s uncompromisingly soul-crushing documentaries. Nobody
appears to be making much money out of textiles, unless it is the “big
factories” that factor so prominently in rumors throughout the film. From what
the audience can pick up on, the margins just sound punishing. Yet people keep
coming and they keep finding work, albeit at wages not far above subsistence
Once again, Wang is fleet of foot and handy enough
with the handheld to capture some telling moments. Arguably, this is the most
engaging group of subjects he has filmed since Three Sisters. We feel sympathy for nearly all of them, but we only
despair for a select few, which gives it a considerably less downcast tone than
most of his films. There is a lot of life going on in Bitter Money, as everyone tries to get by as best they can.
Recommended for admirers of Wang’s intense examination of the human condition
in contemporary China, Bitter Money screens
this Thursday (2/23), as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Documentary, Film Comment Selects '17, Wang Bing