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Bitter Money

A Film Review

Bitter Money
Directed by Wang Bing
Produced by: Gladys Glover, House on Fire, Chinese Shadows
China 2016
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
152 minutes in duration

Available on iTunes and Amazon.
Trailer available on YouTube.

Bitter Money is a documentary by Wang Bing, a Chinese documentary filmmaker who has attained international acclaim for capturing the raw realities of life in China.

In this particular film, Wang Bing introduces us to the city of Huzhou, in Zhejiang province. Through a number of story lines and characters, he gives us snapshots of the kinds of lives that are lived and issues that exist in a city with supposedly over 18,000 clothing factories.

The definition of a factory in this case is likely not what we would imagine. It is not always a giant warehouse with endless rows of workers, sewing machines, and packing assembly lines. It could be a small setup, with just a few people in the upstairs of a two-story building. Put thousands of these setups together and you have a factory city.

The film introduces us to three individuals: a teenage girl who goes to the big city with her cousin to work in one of these small clothing factories in hope of a better life, a woman who is in an abusive relationship but cannot seem to leave her situation, and a man who’s trying to make enough money for his family while he may be misusing his funds for other things.

The premise of the film is not earth shattering, and it’s not meant to be. Wang’s message to the audience seems to be, “Look!” He wants us to look and see, and understand, that this is what life is for some in China. He wants to show us that migrant workers all around China (not just in Huzhou) are stuck in an endless cycle of moving to big cities, hoping for a better life, discovering that it is not what they expected and then, even worse, finding themselves in more troublesome circumstances.

Wang communicates these things through the observational cinema style that he’s known for. There is no narration or voice over, we simply watch as life takes place. This style is not everyone’s cup of tea, myself included. The film ran for two and a half hours. The cuts were long and the pace slow. The style is similar to Factory Youth, which is even longer and has a similar feel.

I don’t deny that this kind of film is necessary to give insight into the kind of life being lived in many parts of modern China; I just personally don’t prefer the style.

Wang Bing’s films have done very well at international film festivals, even winning awards—some for a documentary that is nine hours long. I wonder if the films appeal more to foreign audiences who have never experienced first-hand this kind of environment in China. Would those who have spent time in China, in these types of cities, engaged with migrant workers, or those who are themselves local Chinese, find this as fascinating as those on the outside do?

Regardless of my preferences, Wang Bing is making a solid name for Chinese documentary filmmakers and will continue to tell it like it is by letting his films do the talking.

Image credit: Bitter Money on Pyramide Films.
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Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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