Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, Higher Ground Productions
USA; 2019; 115 minutes in duration
English and Mandarin, with English subtitles
Available on Netflix.
I was counting down the days until American Factory would start showing on Netflix. From everything I had heard about the film it sounded like a movie I would not want to miss. And I was right; American Factory did not disappoint. Quite the opposite, it is indeed a very, very good movie.
As the name indicates, the film is a documentary about an American factory—but it is so much more. It is a tale of two countries. It provides a glimpse into China and Chinese culture, and insight into cultural differences and warm friendships.
American Factory takes us to a factory in Ohio. General Motors used to have a big factory there, but as it was closed down in 2008. Many lost their jobs. A glimmer of hope came in 2014 when an automobile glass factory opened. It did not, however, take very long for them to realize that much had changed.
The new factory was opened by the Fuyao Group from China which belongs to the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang. Not only is the leadership now Chinese, the factory also has a large number of Chinese workers. The cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese are vast at every level: leaders, managers, and workers alike.
The Americans are used to an eight-hour work day, five days a week, whereas the Chinese are used to working twelve-hour days, six days a week. And not only that, they also work hard. Fuyao expects to move their norms and culture to America, but the changes are not well received and chairman Cao Dewang and the Chinese leaders complain about the lazy, inefficient, and far too chatty American workers. “They care only about getting paid” indicates how the Chinese leaders understand the American workers.
Fuyao decides to fly several of the factory’s American managers to visit one of their factories in Fujian province in China to show them what efficiency looks like. Seeing the eyes of the Americans as they observe life in a Chinese factory is most amusing. There are brilliant examples here which could be used in culture class.
For those of you who have lived in China, there are so many things you will recognize in these scenes. The slogans; the little kids doing a well-rehearsed, well-choreographed, and rather amazing performance; all the food and the bai ju; and the cringing moment when it is the laowais’ turn to get on stage and sing—it is all too familiar.
Though American Factory is not officially available in China, it has stirred up quite a storm. It has millions of comments on Weibo. Many have commented on the life shown in the Chinese factory—a life which is traditional, nationalistic, and quite feudal. This at a time when so much is focused on the modern, global lifestyle many young, educated Chinese are used to. Capitalism, work ethics, safety and unions are now being discussed online in China by those who has been watching American Factory. “The working class is degraded, and, as elsewhere in the third world, workers have been reduced to a source of cheap, alienated labor for international capital.”
American Factory is a movie I am recommending to my friends and family who have never lived in China. It gives them a small glimpse into some aspects of Chinese culture and it leads to good conversations.
Although the film is about an American factory and it also provides insight into the working class in the US and the labor unions, although that is not what I as someone who is not an American, take away from watching the film. What I take away are the backyard barbecues, fishing trips, and the friendships between the Americans and the Chinese workers. Anyone of us, who have had the privilege to experience such friendships with Chinese people should watch this film. You will enjoy it. At times you will shake your head and at times you will smile a grateful smile.
Image credit: American Factory official trailer.
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