As with all of Wang Bing’s films, here one is faced with a strictly observational work. And with Wang, observational usually means immersed rather than detached or removed from the spaces and people that he encounters or follows. In this case, the spaces are of the city of Huzhou in Zhejiang province and the small, private garment workshops that number in the ten thousands there and the people are some of the hundreds of thousands who travel to the city from the countryside to toil in such workshops. However, though still of a substantial running time that is also a mark of Wang’s films and a significant addition to the larger context of documenting/archiving marginalised experiences and perspectives in twenty-first century China that is his filmography, the film is unpleasantly uneven in execution and not as affective, affectively persistent, or memorable as in his previous films in its effect.
Such curtailed affect with this film is initially a bit of a mystery. One could argue that the lack of emotional engagement can be attributed to the fact that it does not have a principal protagonist. But such is arguably the case for practically all of Wang’s films. They do not focus on one particular person but rather a community and environment and the relationships to be had within them and to society at large. For the power of Wang’s films lies in the way they register and express simultaneously the kind of relationships, or affective and socio-economic links, between people and spaces, from the personal, public, and to the institutional. By extension, in the course of watching the films, these links come to encompass the link between film text and spectator. If there is one underlying focus, it is work/labour itself. For it is the one constant. In Bitter Money, people come and go in these small garment workshops, due principally to little-to-no wages, and additionally to the hope/ambition of landing a post at a big factory or an inability to adapt/adjust to the work and average 12-hour/day schedule. In fact, the film begins with three teenagers – cousins Xiaomin and Yuanzhen and a boy also their age – trekking from their hometown in Yunnan province to Huzhou to secure a job. They end up finding work at one such small, privately owned textiles workshop.
Yet before one can begin to get to know these three teenagers, their new environment, and the affective and socio-economic links forged between them – from which develops the link between the film and the spectator – the film decides to follow a young married woman, Lingling, with whom Xiaomin has a conversation early in the film at their workshop. Admittedly, this kind of aborted or underdeveloped quality in sequences characterises roughly the first hour of the film. The opening sequence is of Xiaomin, her family, and Yuanzhen on the eve of their departure; it is the first and last time her family appears in the film. One thus knows even less of the family than the three teenagers. Lingling appears and disappears in the film just as haphazardly: following the aforementioned conversation, the film follows her as she attempts to meet with her husband. She first meets/speaks with her sister and brother-in-law about her marital problems before finally going over to the place where she lives with her husband. What transpires is a protracted argument between the husband and wife: while she calmly asks him to provide her with money if they are going to remain away from each other, he overreacts with anger and physical violence as he tells her to get lost and not humiliate him. Thankfully, the men who stop their card game and disperse when the couple starts their argument stick around and prevent the husband from giving into full-blown violence against Lingling. Partially concluded, a cut presents a new day and a different focus (and never revisiting the couple). This time, it is the young man who also made the trek with Xiaomin and Yuanzhen to find work. He reveals that he is going back home and so the film, as if realising it has no more use for such a social actor, ends its already brief relationship with him.
One could also argue that the problem with this film lies in these underdeveloped strands of lives. But a fundamental component of Wang’s documentary style is exactly a piecemeal approach, so that the parts combine for a greater complex whole (but one that is neither absolute nor totalising). In truth, only half of the power in Wang’s films lies in capturing the relationships between bodies and spaces. The other half rests with how sequences of these relationships dialogue with each other to produce a greater complex whole. The issue with Bitter Money is that the parts are too disconnected from each other; certainly they point to a greater complex whole, but provoking indifference more than concern about it.
The rest of the film fares better in establishing both the relationships between bodies and spaces and a dialogue between sequences, even as it accompanies different workers. Sequences in the workspace are particularly strong, with workers poring over sewing machines, wordlessly and tirelessly, the body and machine becoming one and encased indoors. The harshness of the continuous work and concomitant noise is only softened by pop music being played from some diegetic source. Indicative of the power of Wang’s piecemeal approach that is absent in the first hour is how one discovers the distinction between a big factory and a small workshop, through bits and pieces gleaned from various conversations: in the former, there are better wages, vacation days, and more controlled hours. In following one worker as he walks through dorms, with some of the beds occupied by fellow workers, one hears an all-too-true, precious maxim in the midst of such incessant work: ‘sleeping is free.’ And though there is no whining or wallowing in pity or misery when they wrap up work and rest in their living quarters or dorms, explicit is the fact that they are cooped up indoors for the better part of their days, almost to the point where the distinction between day and night disappears. Hence the frequency and poignancy of shots of workers either alone or with someone else simply standing at a balcony and looking out into – nay, breathing in – the wide expanse of buildings and the city.
Further indicative of Wang’s oft-expected insightful, piecemeal observational filmmaking is the film’s conclusion, which somewhat recuperates the first hour. In following an older man who wants to collect his wages and quit, and wanders around the workspace and chats with workers at their sewing machines, and another worker who is fired for being too slow, the observation becomes all too clear: from teen-age to middle-age, lives will be spent inside factories, bodies worked until they become unusable. If their bodies are still usable, they will wear themselves down, physically and mentally, through other means, like drinking and gambling. The older man’s boss gives an inkling to such a trajectory and therefore tells him that he will wait until tomorrow to give the man his money, when he is sober. In some sense, what the film implies through this particular man – and why the film begins as it does – is that he and his broken body/psyche are a picture of what the young, newly arrived workers like Xiaomin, Yuanzhen, and many more like them will become.
Bitter Money is available on DVD from Icarus Films.