'Bitter Money' ('Ku Qian'): Film Review | Venice 2016

Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing documents the trials and tribulations at small garment workshops in a provincial city.

Devoid of dirt, decay and destitution, Wang Bing's latest documentary - set in a series of small, thriving garment workshops in a neon-lit provincial city - seems miles away from the Chinese cineaste's usual stomping grounds of grey industrial complexes, grubby rural hamlets and cramped colonies. But while the milieu might be different, the metier and moral remain the same. With its vivid, extended depiction of migrants wasting their lives away through monotonous labor, Bitter Money adds yet another chapter to Wang's patient and painfully heartfelt chronicle of lives left fluttering in the wake of a country's ascent to global supremacy.

While slightly more compact than Wang's previous documentaries, Bitter Money is still a slow-burning movie, which, through its long takes of quotidian routines, really initiates the viewer into the ennui of workers on the lowest rung of the huffing and puffing Chinese economy. A prize-winner at the Horizons sidebar at Venice, Bitter Money should find cordial welcomes at international festivals similarly to Ta'ang, the Berlinale title revolving around distraught refugees along the war-stricken China-Burma border. The next stop for Wang's latest film will be the DMZ documentary festival in South Korea.

Picking up where Ta'ang left off, Bitter Money begins in the mountains in a town in Yunnan, the province which borders Burma. In a prologue, a teenager and her family voice their hopes and worries about her imminent move eastward to get a job. On the bus to the train station, she talks to a baby-cradling friend about the death and destruction following a recent earthquake; once on the train, passengers regale her (and others) with tales about the toxic environment in factories he worked in.

Night turns to day and then night again as the train whizzes across the country, its passengers all asleep while sprawled in their seats or slumped on the floor. Occasionally, someone stirs, stares at the camera and then slides back into slumber again as the locomotives chug along. In a manner much more intense than J.P. Sniadecki's powerful life-on-the-tracks documentary The Iron Ministry, Wang evokes a sense of community, and also claustrophobia through those images of collective dormancy.

It's a metaphor, perhaps, for a collective "Chinese dream" of finding a better life at the end of the line. The destination, at least for the young woman, is Zhili, a small eastern Chinese town well-known for its garment industry - specifically, its constellation of workshops producing children's clothing. It's perhaps ironic that the girl, in her teens and having barely shed her rural naivete, is soon ushered into a job packaging clothes for children.

Belying its title, however, Bitter Money is not a headline-grabbing exposé of inhuman practices in horrible sweatshops. For the girl and the string of laborers who appear after her - two similar-aged women with their fancy cell-phones, an intoxicated man hollering about leaving for home, his more sober, orderly roommate - they hardly seem like abject victims of severe exploitation. The women talk about going out, the drunkard gets a severe dressing-down from his boss, the normal guy offers advice to others and even comforts an acquaintance who was beaten by her husband.

That brawl - taking place in the shop the couple owns, and filmed and shown here in its entirety - is perhaps Bitter Money's only moment of high drama. With the help of editor Dominique Auvray - who counts slow-cinema master Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth, Horse Money) among her collaborators - Wang has produced an absorbing treatise of forgotten lives as lived by individuals in transit. The bodies remain intact, but their spirits are broken.

While the subjects' prospects remain uncertain, Wang's images are very clear. Despite the perennially dark settings, the faces and places are always visible: Filmed in light-sensitive digital, the individuals' expressions are illuminated by streetlights or even cell phone screens as they walk down alleys or lay idle in their beds. So it is a pity that the viewer never gets to know their names - shouldn't they be recognized as individuals, rather than just interchangeable parts of a big, faceless mass? - even if their silent despair and helplessness lingers.