Sometime around 1950, blue jeans went from farm wear to iconoclastic statement, becoming a kind of low-rise, boot-cut shorthand for free-market capitalism. Duly coveted in Soviet bloc countries, and now similarly smuggled into North Korea like blood diamonds, if denim is not yet a universal language, it gets closer by the day.
There’s a terrible irony, then, to the designer jeans uniformly worn by the teenage laborers featured in China Blue, Micha X. Peled’s meticulously livid exposé of a sweatshop in southern China. Jasmine, 16, is one of the tens of millions of Chinese who have left their rural villages in search of work. At the Lifeng factory, she and the girls snip threads and sew zippers for pennies on the hour (sometimes purchasing “energy medicine” on the street to work all night). They are beholden to a deadbeat boss (Mr. Lam prefers “docile and obedient” female workers) who is himself beholden to the criminally low-balled purchase orders coming in from all over the world, for clients like Levi and Wal-Mart.
Shot at the peril of Peled and his crew, China Blue feels stage-managed at times, but the conditions of this 750-person factory are heartbreaking, as are the wistful faces of the girls as they stumble back to their 12-person dorm room and wonder who could possibly fit into the fatass jeans they are literally slaving to produce. Don’t look now, but it might be you.