While sweatshop scandals have rocked the increasingly international garment industry for years, Micha Peled’s docu “China Blue” makes a stronger case against worker exploitation than any news item could, simply by showing the everyday lives of some Mainland China factory girls. That the principal figures are, not at all atypically, just teenagers — hopeful, fun-loving, energetic, naïve –alleviates and underlines the depressing nature of lifestyles that by most Western standards would be considered harsh, even inhumane. Quite engaging in character and narrative terms, feature merits further fest play before broadcast, educational and possible limited theatrical exposure.
The “New Era” of economic progress in China has created a new generation of entrepreneurs like Mr. Lam, a former police chief turned owner of the bluejeans factory in southern burg Shaxi, “China’s Famous Clothing Town.” It’s drawn an estimated 130 million workers from rural areas during its five years of operation. Most workers start as youths like 15-year-old Jasmine, who’s never traveled before and didn’t want to leave home. But she feels duty-bound to take advantage of the opportunity to send wages home, even if she’ll now only be able to visit her family every couple of years or so.
Entering at the bottom of the totem pole as an excess-thread cutter, Jasmine makes about 6¢ an hour, and is charged by the factory for room and board. She also has to work shifts that can stretch to 20 hours.
Weeks pass before she gets a glimpse of the city — months before she gets her first paycheck, between the factory’s cashflow-strapped payroll delays (which at one point prompt a brief workers’ strike) and the custom of withholding initial payout as insurance a worker won’t jump ship.
Mr. Lam’s thinks himself a relaxed manager, proud of his operation and open about letting the filmmakers shoot as they will. But when deadlines approach and employees complain about endless hours or ever-postponed pay, his real attitudes leak out: They’re “uneducated, low-caliber” types sans work ethics, lazy and devious. Of course, after a 20-hour shift with no paycheck in sight, what kind of employee can you expect?
In Lam’s defense, it’s noted that independent worker-rights inspectors consider this factory’s conditions better than many, and that the buyers for Western brands and store chains negotiate manufacturers like Lam down to the half-penny — the real profits are made, and kept, in first-world countries.
Bleakly Dickensian as all this sounds, much of “China Blue” is charming, because its subjects are. Finding amusement in the few spare moments they can, sweet-natured Jasmine and her more citified zipper-installer friend Orchid (who’s found time for a boyfriend) are disarmingly natural on camera. Their welfare becomes of real concern to the viewer as the exhaustion and ill-health wrought by brutal work stints grow apparent.
Pic’s degree of access and intimacy is surprising, even more so when closing intertitles reveal Chinese authorities did try to shut down the filmmakers several times. (In anticipation of a diplomat’s visit to Canada, they also later clamored to get the movie dropped from Toronto program.)
Lensing and tech contribs are just OK, but good enough under what were at least sometimes clandestine circumstances.