Film Review: ‘Bitter Money’

Award-winning observational documentary maker Wang Bing turns his camera on China’s internal migrants and their hardscrabble lives in garment workshops.

Ku qian Venice
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Wang Bing’s ability to connect with the working class subjects of his documentaries (“West of the Tracks,” “Three Sisters”) is the chief reason for his films’ success: They foreground a dogged determination to survive, balanced on a sharp underlying critique of China’s bastardized form of Party capitalism. As a title, “Bitter Money” seems like the perfect expression of the director’s stance, yet this time his subjects — men and women who left Yunnan province to work in the booming garment trade city of Huzhou, about two hours west of Shanghai — seem too randomly chosen, and the lack of direct engagement stymies involvement over the picture’s two-plus hours. Even festivals are unlikely to be as welcoming as before.

Wang’s understated, deceptively casual observational style doesn’t exactly plunge viewers into the urgency of hardscrabble lives; it feels more like waiting in an anteroom for the action to begin. Teenage cousins Xiao Min and Chen Yuanzhen have a family meal in their village in northeastern Yunnan before leaving home, like thousands of others, for the booming industrial cities near China’s eastern coast. They board an overcrowded train (familiar to those who’ve seen J.P. Sniadecki’s “The Iron Ministry”) and arrive in Huzhou to start work in one of the countless small garment workshops there.

That’s about as much as we see of these two, who’ve barely registered as complex subjects before Wang shifts attention to Ling Ling, a 25-year-old woman whose abusive husband has just kicked her out their home. The camera follows her beckoning through nighttime streets and hallways, watching her talk to her unsympathetic sister, then her nasty husband outside their shop, where he berates and assaults her in front of his chums. Good-natured friend Lao Yeh is the only person who attempts to calm the situation, though his own life is hardly a bed of roses.

Occasionally Wang circles back to the people from before, but adds little to the picture that’s already been established: Huzhou is a purgatory of nondescript streets where internal migrants slave away in unregulated workshops, earning little money. There is no joy, just a numbed acceptance that this is what life is. If there’s anything they look forward to, or aspire to, Wang doesn’t show us. They’ve become unremarkable cogs in the wheels of China’s economic juggernaut, surviving but not living, leaving little impact on a city that swallows them up into an anonymous mass of exhausted desperation.

Because Wang maintains a non-interventionist approach, the camera observes at a remove, which means that whatever is seen and heard is casually gleaned (there’s also no acknowledgement that his subjects may, on occasion, be playing for the camera). We see people’s exterior selves, view their despondency, yet never get under their skin: they all remain two-dimensional figures whose main traits are an inability to change their situation, and pathos. Editing becomes the sole means of making a statement, which Wang does in almost subliminal ways by including snippets of overheard conversations, such as a man on a train who talks about the toxic gases in the factory where he used to work.

Through such means, the director ensures his message gets across: that tens of thousands of uprooted villagers are toiling for very little pay in a twilit world of cheap workshops, their misery corroding any semblance of basic human interaction. Yet Wang’s decision to follow several people means that no one leaves much of an impression, and this lack of specificity, in a sense, returns his subjects to the anonymous morass from which they barely emerge.

Technical credits are relatively rough, and occasionally sound is a problem when the wind picks up.

Film Review: ‘Bitter Money’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 9, 2016. Running time: <strong>157 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Ku Qian”)

  • Production: (Documentary – France-Hong Kong) A Gladys Glover, House on Fire, Chinese Shadows, Wil Prods., Fame Culture Media, Yisha Prod. production, in association with Arte France – La Lucarne. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Producers: Nicolas R. de la Mothe, Sonia Buchman,Vincent Wang, Mao Hui.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Wang Bing. Camera (color): Wang. Editors: Dominique Auvray, Wang.
  • With: Xiao Min, Chen Yuanzhen, Ling Ling, Lao Yeh, Zheng Lanlan, Xu Houqin, Huang Lei, Fang Bing, Tao Lin. (Mandarin, Anhui dialect, Yunnan dialect, Henan dialect dialogue)