Bitter Money (Icarus Films, NR)

H uzhou is a city of almost three million people in Zhejiang province, China. Historically, it’s known as a center of silk manufacturing, and today is home to about 18,000 garment factories employing some 300,000 people. Those factories are the lure for two young cousins, Xiao Min and Chen Yuanzhen, who are the central subjects in Wang Bing’s documentary Bitter Money. We first meet the cousins at home, chatting frankly with family members about the importance of having the right documents, and how to obtained falsified papers if you need them—as in the case of Xiao Min, who at age 15 feels she will have a better chance finding work if her identity papers show her as older than she really is.

We follow the cousins on the long train ride (over 1,000 miles) from Yunnan Province in the West to Huzhou in the East, in a car crammed with others seeking their fortune in the big city. In Suzhou, we observe the lives of various individuals, always without explanation from the filmmaker. There’s no way to know how Wang chooses which people to follow and which scenes to leave on the cutting room floor, but the stories in Bitter Money mostly live up to the title, implying that these workers have given up much that is sweet in life in search of a better future that may never arrive. A woman is abused by her husband, in full view of other men. An older man takes refuge in drink, while a younger man decides he’s had it with 12 hour days and returns home to the provinces. A young girl wordlessly wrestles with large pieces of fabric as she threads them through her sewing machine. Most workers live in cramped dorms when they’re not working, which they seem to do at all hours of the day and night. These workers are not employed in the Apple factory or its equivalent, but in small sweatshops that would not be out of place (except for the presence of electricity and cell phones) in Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives.

Wang prefers to immerse his audience in a world rather than explaining it to them, and there’s not a lot of narrative structure in this film. Instead of providing explanation, he allows the camera to observe people going about their daily lives, sometimes pulling back to reveal the wider environment. It’s the viewer’s job to put it all together, but the view he offers of modern  Chinese life is fascinating as well as grim.

Wang’s approach is not for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed his previous films (Dead Souls, Mrs. Fang, Three Sisters, etc.), or if you’re a fan of Frederic Wiseman, you’ll probably like this one as well. On the other hand, if you don’t care for his particular style of filmmaking, you’ll probably grow impatient with this film’s running time (2 hours 32 minutes) and the director’s propensity for including the most ordinary aspects of life within his film. Bitter Money won the Human Rights Film Network Award and the Venice Horizons Award (for Best Screenplay) at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for the Venice Horizons Award at the same festival. | Sarah Boslaugh

Bitter Money is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films, and is also available for streaming on Amazon Video and iTunes. Extras included with the DVD include an illustrated booklet including an essay on the film by Aaron Cutler, and trailers for two other Wang Bing documentaries, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and Three Sisters.

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