Set in the extended aftermath of the economic slowdown, Factory Boss focuses on the Dalin Toy Factory in Shenzhen, one of a mere hundred manufacturing enterprises that are still standing in a city that could ‘boast’ thousands of sweatshops just a few years earlier. The questionable conditions of China’s factories were depicted during the boom years in such candid documentaries as Santa’s Workshop (2004) and China Blue (2007), which addressed the exploitation of migrant workers, many of whom have relocated from the countryside in the hope that assembling consumer items will lead to a better standard of living. Zhang Wei’s narrative feature Factory Boss instead examines China’s manufacturing sector from the perspective of a floundering owner, Mr. Lin (Yao Anlian), a self-made enterpriser who has benefited from China’s manufacturing boom since the 1990s but now stands to lose everything as global circumstances conspire to shape local narratives.
Although the profit margin is slim, Lin is forced to accept an order from an American toy company on unfavourable terms as a means of keeping his business afloat. The contract represents a lifeline to Lin as his employees are angrily demanding unpaid wages. A few of the younger workers are so disgruntled with the situation that they set fire to a truck, an incident that attracts the attention of crusader reporter Ai Jing (Tang Yan) who goes undercover at the factory as a new administration assistant. Lin tries to fulfill his make-or-break contract by driving productivity and cutting costs – breaks are limited, the speed of the production line is increased and safety concerns are ignored as the installation of a new ventilation unit is postponed until the business gets a second financial wind. Yet there is a benevolent side to Lin that occasionally balances out his apparent disregard for employee welfare as he tries to do right by long-serving workers. His operation constitutes a sprawling makeshift family since it has been in business for so long that it now has a second generation of workers who grew up on the premises. Still, the dubious measures taken by Lin to meet market demands and the scrutiny that ensues from media and legal quarters as a result of Ai’s reports serve to wipe out any last vestiges of respect that the workers have for their employer.
The events of Factory Boss unfold as a chain of misfortune with parties invested at various levels of industry trying to minimise both their exposure and their ties to Lin. Its factory floor scenes often have a fly on the wall quality, whether it’s a worker being publicly docked a months’ pay for a mistake that could have resulted in an entire order being recalled or Lin’s efforts to keep senior workers on his side with a friendly chat in the cafeteria. Dramatic momentum is maintained through ‘ticking clock’ elements such as Lin’s risky ideas for staying on schedule and meetings with client representatives and local bureaucrats who already seem aware that his factory will soon be written off as another cautionary tale.
Zhang knows this territory well having turned to filmmaking after amassing considerable wealth from manufacturing video intercom doorbell systems in Shenzhen. He never lets his central protagonist off the hook for his flawed decision-making but does engender a fair measure of sympathy for a ‘boss’ who is, in fact, a compromised middleman who may end up with less than his impoverished workforce. Another factory owner suggests that Lin should follow his path by relocating his business to Burma, which has an abundance of cheap labor and has yet to put overtime regulations in place. Lin, however, wants to stay in China to launch his own toy line and shed the “Made in China” label. Unfortunately, his bid for independence from American companies – a line of dolls that he hopes will fly off the racks in Walmart – is just an imitation of what his factory has been churning out to client specifications for decades. It’s a last stand that, in terms of both timing and product innovation, is too little, too late.
Yao runs the gamut from dignified to desperate without ever begging for sympathy, even in scenes that allow for a certain amount of grandstanding. What we learn about Lin largely comes from his dealings with others (he has a daughter who is attending school in the United States but her mother is never seen or mentioned) and Yao subtly shows that this is a man who is well aware that he has many connections but few real friends. It’s a commendably unfussy performance that anchors a sobering illustration of how China’s ‘economic miracle’ is now as synonymous with its ever-mounting casualties as it is with its unprecedented successes.
Factory Boss was shown at the Asia House Film Festival 2016 on February 26.