The title figure in “Factory Boss” is one who normally garners little sympathy, particularly in the West, where cheap Chinese labor has undercut local production. Yet helmer Zhang Wei and thesp Yao Anlian create a complex character virtually impossible not to identify with, at least partially: Caught between a rock and a hard place — the paper-thin profit margins offered by Western conglomerates vs. rising worker demands at home — he inevitably winds up treating everyone unfairly, including himself. For growing ranks of China watchers, “Factory Boss” offers an engrossing expose of the built-in impasses of global economics from an unexplored perspective.
Lin Dalin (Yao) owns a toy factory in Shenzhen, one of the few surviving remnants of a once-thriving industry. As he faces stiff competition from cheaper Asian markets, his only hope of staying afloat is to accept an order from an American mega-corporation at a price beneath that necessary to maintain adequate wages and safety for his workers. Yet to refuse the order would mean shutting down the factory, leaving workers without jobs. Lin speeds up assembly lines and cuts corners while desperately trying to placate the increasingly disaffected workforce, every decision plunging him further into disaster.
Meanwhile, an idealistic young reporter (a too-pretty Tang Yan) secures a position at the company as a cover for her investigation of conditions in a “blood and sweat” shop. Her article further inflames the situation, though by the time public outcry and manager-worker tensions have reached a boiling point, she has come to understand Lin’s side of the story.
Indeed, helmer Zhang, having arrived late to his cinematic career, was himself once an entrepreneur, and seems to have made this film expressly in order to communicate management’s perspective on industry and labor disputes, careful to concede the justice of many of the workers’ demands while denouncing lawyers who push them to unreasonable excesses. The final courtroom scene ends with Lin’s moving defense of his beleaguered-middleman plight.
The power and subtlety of Yao’s performance (he won a much-deserved best actor prize in Montreal) and the film’s visual grounding in the actual assembly-line processes of a doll-manufacturing plant (naked little plastic body parts abounding in lenser Lutz Reitemeier’s widescreen compositions) are what save “Factory Boss” from its borderline didactic, overly careful apportioning of responsibility. Rather predictably, it’s the profit-pursuing American conglomerate that is finally left to shoulder the blame in an impassioned speech by the idealistic reporter.
But if Zhang’s own business experience adds a note of self-justification to the mix, his feel for the day-to-day pressures, compromises and difficulties of running a factory, at a time when the country’s “made in China” hegemony has begun to erode, proves wholly convincing. This lends the film an unmistakable authenticity as it grants Yao’s boss a specific socioeconomic context for his endless, danger-fraught decision making.