Still from Bitter Money (courtesy Icarus Films)

China is one of the major fulcrums of globalization. This has spurred endless pieces and discussion, from hand-wringing over threats to the West’s power to questions of whether the People’s Republic is really communist anymore. Human interest stories occasionally look at what ordinary Chinese workers are going through, but it’s difficult to capture social change on a large scale. China sees hundreds of millions of people migrating each year for work. In his new film Bitter Money, documentarian Wang Bing explores such subjects in both intimate and expansive detail.

This is a continuation of Wang’s larger body of work; with each film, he captures a different facet of life for people caught in the tidal swell of economic upheaval. In 2016’s Ta’ang, he followed Ta’ang refugees from Myanmar forming makeshift, constantly moving communities as they crossed into China, while 2012’s Three Sisters features young girls left alone by their parents in their search for work. His 2003 debut, West of the Tracks, is a nine-hour epic about people dealing with the decline and closure of factories. The common thread among these disparate people is how powerless and small they appear against their circumstances. In this way, he shows how large the forces propelling them are.

A family makes the decision to seek work in Huzhou (courtesy Icarus Films)

Bitter Money focuses on some of the 300,000 people working among the 18,000 small textile businesses in the eastern city of Huzhou. It begins with a rural family discussing the possibility of sending some of its members there in the hopes of improving their lives. Eventually the film accompanies two teenage cousins on their train journey to Huzhou. It is at this point that Bitter Money begins to shift, gently stepping away from the cousins to look at the train’s other denizens. We see people crammed into aisles, sleeping in the bathrooms, as the documentary cuts quietly from one story to another, building a human mosaic of life in Huzhou.

Wang has an unreal talent for finding precisely the right way to frame candid moments — and for making reenacted moments appear candid. Bitter Money employs the consistent visual motif of framing its characters within small spaces. Sometimes this naturally arises from the environment, for instance, in little houses or workshops. Other times the camera turns a few rows from a train car, or a storefront, or a balcony into an isolated area. The visuals emphasize that the subjects are trapped by circumstance. We watch them perform repetitive work at sewing machines for lengthy scenes, enough to try to project the tedium of a 12- or 14-hour workday and give the viewer a bare sense of what their lives are like.

Ling Ling, one of the major subjects of Bitter Money (courtesy Icarus Films)

The picture is sometimes grim, even harrowing, but Wang isn’t interested in wallowing in misery. Documentaries, being generally made for middle and upper-class audiences, can easily succumb to condescension or outright exploitative misery porn when depicting working people. Sometimes they don’t do so in an overtly manipulative way, but simply to turn an “objective” lens on all the worst things they can find. Bitter Money doesn’t flinch when showing upsetting content (one extended, excruciating sequence follows the subject Ling Ling enduring physical and emotional abuse from her husband), but it also presents exploitation and abuse as simply moving parts in a larger system. There are moments of friendship and warmth, as well, but the primary sense a viewer gets is that being on the bottom rung of capitalism consists mainly of boredom. Survival is above all else a mundane business.

Teenage cousins on the train to Huzhou, looking for work (courtesy Icarus Films)

Wang’s films have been festival favorites for years, but they can be difficult to track down, often not getting more than a brief theatrical release in major cities. However, there are options available. Bitter Money is now on VOD and DVD. West of the Tracks is available to stream on Kanopy. Three Sisters can be streamed on multiple platforms. Independent Chinese documentaries provide a vital outlet for learning about the country in a way that is free of Western chauvinism or alarmism, and Wang is one of the best filmmakers working today — in fiction or nonfiction.

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Bitter Money is now on VOD and DVD. West of the Tracks is available to stream on Kanopy. Three Sisters can be streamed on multiple platforms. 

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.