In recent years, the documentary-cinema boom that permeated China in the Nineties and Aughts has slowed down. With media-making tools now available to more people than ever, and the explosion of social media and VPNs making unregulated flows of data more accessible compared to the old networks of pirated DVD-R’s, documentary filmmaking has become a less urgent route to portraying the conditions of contemporary life in China. Young artists and directors seem to have moved their energies elsewhere, while the first generation of Chinese documentary filmmakers seem to either be gradually moving into retirement (like Wu Wenguang) or, as is the case with Behemoth’s Zhao Liang, relying more on the gallery as a venue for their work.
Not so Wang Bing. Since making a name for himself in the mid Aughts with epic, sustained studies of China’s decaying industrial centers — including his astonishing nine-hour debut, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003), and the fourteen-hour Crude Oil (2008) — Wang has been steadily cranking out on average a film a year. This constant output has expanded the scope of his emerging body of work to comprise everything from historical drama (2010’s The Ditch) to nonfiction pieces about mental-health treatment centers (2013’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part) and the migration of Ta’ang refugees from Myanmar across Yunnan Province (2016’s Ta’ang). It’s also added some variety to his famously durational forms: Recent works have ranged in length from 2017’s downright brief Mrs. Fang (90 minutes) to the more characteristically expansive (and accurately titled) 15 Hours at last year’s documenta 14.
Wang’s new Bitter Money extends his ongoing portraiture of present-day China by returning him to the subject of labor, here with a midlength exploration (152 minutes) of migrant workers traveling to the eastern city of Huzhou in Zhejiang Province to find work in the city’s garment factories. Drawing on over two years of material, shot between 2014 and 2016, Wang follows a loose sampling of the more than 300,000 migrant workers who make the trek from nearby provinces like Yunnan and Anhui for short-term gigs to provide for school tuition, pay off debts, or support their families at home. Working in shifts that last up to thirteen hours a day, the workers spend their time — and much of the film — between banks of sewing machines and piles of fabric in dim, fluorescent-lit bunkers, where they also sleep and while away their leisure time.
As with his other films, Wang made Bitter Money with a minimal budget, a tiny crew, and an auto-focusing DSLR camera — elements which provide an agility and an intimacy uncommon even within the traditions of vérité or “direct cinema” at large. Indeed, his works suggest a more ambiguous position than that of the typical fly on the wall: Wang’s films complexly drift between a more passive observational mode and one more directly engaged with his collaborators. Given his reliance on long takes, Wang frequently toggles between these approaches in a single shot, as when he follows characters up the concrete steps of the factory/residential complex, or when he tags along with a young woman named Ling Ling as she asks her estranged, abusive husband for money. Ling Ling beckons Wang’s camera to follow her through a labyrinth of alleyways and stairwells and sparsely furnished lodgings, only to end up in her spouse’s game shop, where a protracted, infuriating, occasionally shockingly violent argument ensues. The husband wanders in and out of his shop, each time returning inside to reinitiate a fight. At one point, he grabs his wife by the throat. Ling Ling resignedly endures the abuse, saying that at least she will die in her own home. “That bitch isn’t human,” the husband sneers to his friend/patron, who eventually intervenes in the conflict.
Wang’s own apparent refusal to intervene here makes this scene especially difficult and disturbing to watch — and one that might prompt accusations of negligence or even opportunistic voyeurism. These accusations may indeed be fair, but it’s important to recognize that it’s only through Wang’s film that we have occasion to consider them. The scene — and Wang’s seeming nonaction within it — puts us as viewers in a very ambiguous position between the camera and the other troubled onlookers. We are not, as in so many a contemporary documentary, made to merely identify with the position of cameraperson, but are forced to consider and find our own ethical and political positions.
Wang’s purpose in having us endure this scene in real time is not to offer us a dramatic respite from the drudgery of long work shifts, but to make clear that all this action is part of the same steady drift into desperation. Elsewhere, we observe the drained workers in their off-hours, their faces illuminated by the light of their cellphone screens as they blandly check account balances or listlessly swipe through images of their home villages. The conditions of work infect these people’s lives at every moment, even the off-the-clock ones.
The subject of Bitter Money, then, becomes that thing denoted by the title — perpetually discussed, coveted, wasted, tallied up, and squabbled over, but seldom seen, always remaining a mysterious presence. When finally, at the end of the film, we see the finished product of their labors, it amounts to little more than an inert lump of stuff: a thousand garments, wrapped in plastic, bundled, and dumped in massive piles in the street. Value, such as it is, is only indexed in the way the subjects’ energies and hours are captured and carved up into smaller and smaller units for rent or for sale in the networked and accelerated flows of global capital. Even as Wang’s subjects perform a kind of diligence and savvy for the camera, their existence seems little better than that of the pyramid scheme victims they describe, who “roam around like a lost soul…a ghost.”
Anthology Film Archives
Through January 18
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2018