Directed by Wang Bing
February 23, 6:30pm at Film Comment Selects
Dramatizing the plight of the masses is a tough trick. A lack of discernible individuals bores audiences and threatens to turn victims into statistics, but too much focus on individuals means they fail to convincingly and effectively stand for more than themselves. It’s a shame, then, that one of the few directors able to consistently strike the balance is so rarely screened in the United States. Wang Bing’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, from 2013, had a run at Anthology Film Archives last June, but is now three films old, and the two successive have yet to screen in New York. His latest, Bitter Money, currently without US theatrical distribution, once again hits the sweet spot, balancing several stories without sticking to or staying away from any individual for too long. We have enough information to see these people as individuals, but their plights also come to represent a dire, widespread economic reality.
In the beginning, we meet two teenage girls who embark on a multi-day train journey to find work at any of the 18,000+ garment factories in Huzhou (a city about two hours west of Shanghai) that have lured so many migrants. When they arrive, we meet the workers who trudge through twelve-hour days to send money back home to families and those who splurge on gambling and alcohol, the only cures for the exhaustion of the day-to-day.
These garment factories are not the stuff the dreams are made of. Work is dull, hours are long, pay is meager. Employees fold fabrics together and pull them through the sewing, saying nothing to one another, with no variation in their work. The only thing that keeps them sane is the pop songs playing on the radio. Wang spends several minutes presenting this reality; those familiar with Wang will recognize his unwavering belief in duration as a tool of instruction and empathy, and indeed, spending a couple songs with these people as they work, fastidiously yet swiftly, is enough to arouse righteous anger and despair. One can only imagine performing the labor for twelve hours a day, day after day after day, with limited tangible reward.
But it’s what these people do, and what Wang’s unobtrusive approach—long takes, handheld camera, and often refusing to cross a threshold (such as a door) and maintaining a distance from his subjects—illuminates, more fully than a narrative or more interactive approach could, is how it kills them. They talk of nothing but work; they dream merely of moving to a bigger, well-paid factory; they drink, smoke, and gamble purely for the escapist pleasures; every interaction, be it with family, friends or coworkers, is a market relation; and older workers serve as a reminder to the younger ones that nothing better awaits them.
The film’s most dramatic moment occurs only when one woman, Ling Ling, returns home several days after being kicked out by her husband, only to find him just as hostile as before. In front of friends, he yells, threatens, and finally chokes and hits Ling Ling, all while the camera watches from through the window. Minutes pass before one of the husband’s friends begins to intervene, but she still refuses to leave until she is given enough money to get by for a few days. It’s disturbing on its own terms, but within Wang’s panoramic view of labor, it equates one form of exploitation with another, quietly revealing how poverty and abuse perpetuate one another in any unjust system.
It’s revelatory to see that what is accepted in the West as one of globalism’s great successes be turned so thoroughly on its head. The impoverished residing in developing and “third-world” nations now have jobs producing goods, which fuel economic growth, and no country embodies this narrative more than China, whose continued economic growth strikes envy and fear into the hearts of increasingly protectionist westerners. Yet for all the talk of 10% GDP growth, Bitter Money reveals that a rising tide intended to lift all boats leaves even the beneficiaries frantically struggling to stay afloat.