The Icarus Films August 7, 2018 release of the 2016 Wang Bing documentary "Bitter Money" takes the subgenre of films about the conditions in the Chinese sweat shops that produce clothing to a fascinating new level. The intimate portraits of the shamefully exploited workers in the 18,000 clothing factories in Huzhou, China makes every viewer with a heart feel very guilty about finding values at the Gap.
"Money" goes beyond (reviewed) fellow Bing documentary "Three Sisters" in that the experience is much broader than the lives of natives of rural China. The former tells the stories of the human subjects in the larger context of the global garment industry.
Viewers who are familiar with the work of Bing and/or the theme of "Money" literally and figuratively know where things are going in opening scenes of two teen girls in rural China discussing government records that do not reflect their accurate ages.
Akin (pun intended) to the absent father in "Sisters," the girls in "Money" soon board an incredibly overecrowded train to begin factory jobs, Their discussions with their future co-workers provide subjects and audience members insight into the lives of the folks who likely make at least one article of clothing that you are wearing.
On arriving in Huzhou, the girls move into a shabby firetrap that serves as dormitory for the factory workers. If one of these dumps has not already made international news for rapidly burning down and killing 100s of people trapped inside, it is only a matter of time before such a tragedy occurs.
Watching a shirtless chubby man still badly suffering from the heat is one of many images that illustrate the poor environment,. Seeing a married woman who merely is trying to operate her sewing machine having to deal with a creep persistently hitting on her adds another dimension to the film.
Learning that the workers are paid per completed item, rather than hourly, is not surprising. The clearly unreasonable production quotas are a little more shocking. Seeing employees called into work at the last minute in the middle of the night is even worse.
The most compelling subject is young factory worker Ling Ling. This woman who does so much for such little compensation also must deal with an abusive spouse. The most powerful scene in "Money" has Ling Ling in the small store of her husband demanding money and having him repeatedly threaten her with a beating as his entourage and the camera crew look on. This man goes so far as to directly plead his case to the camera following this confrontation.
The more relatable aspect of "Money" is the impact of the work on the subjects. Many of them seem resigned to a life of barely getting by, others have unrealistic dreams of upward mobility, and some are fully delusional regarding living large.
Necessary constructive criticism must be viewed in the context of the documentary genre. Staying completely true to the form requires not editing the footage. However the 2:43 run time alone suggests that Bing documents too much. An example is that it does not seem that excluding a roughly five-minute scene of a card game on the floor of a train would have lessened the impact of the film.
The 16-page booklet, which includes a well-written essay by film critic Aaron Cutler, that Icarus includes provides interesting background information on both Bing and the film.