Wang Bing’s documentaries are angry, raw testaments to the human spirit in the face of social injustice. In this regard, his latest, the harrowing, soulful Bitter Money, is fortunately no exception. Since the 1980s, around 280 million rural denizens of China have migrated to cities in search of higher wages. This class of people has helped propel the country’s industrial economy, though the promise of extra income has come at the cost of enduring isolation, social marginalization, and horrid work conditions. Bitter Money focuses on a loose community of individuals living in the factory city of Huzhou in eastern China, fluidly shifting from person to person as it explores their day-to-day lives.
“To follow” could be said to be Wang’s ethos. Ta’ang, from 2016, was literally structured around following refugees fleeing war, and the Chinese filmmaker’s output, at least since 2012’s Three Sisters, has largely been propelled by his camera’s adherence to his subjects’ movements and spaces. In Bitter Money, Wang gets close to his subjects—so close that he’s in their work and inside their crowded dormitories—but maintains and highlights his limited perspective on their world by often spending time with an individual, only to let them walk into the distance, leaving undisclosed whatever happens next. Techniques like these balance the filmmaker’s proximity to the community with a sense of his outsider status, preventing any illusion of objectivity or detached spectatorship, while still bolstering the film’s unsparing realism.
The degradation at the hands of Huzhou’s factories is the film’s center of gravity. Wang’s captures in great detail the strict logic of quantity that rules these workers’ lives: how they must work seven days a week and 12 hours a day, fill orders for a certain number of shirts, and so on. As one unnamed subject puts it, in response to a rare moment where we hear Wang ask a question, “Every day it’s work-eat-sleep.” Even Bitter Money’s bookends—the film opens with a teenager leaving her village for the city and closes with finished products being prepared to ship out—evoke the lifecycle of human capital that flows through Huzhou daily, materializing, even literalizing, the cruelty of the vast, grinding, impersonal system of industrialization in China.
Bitter Money is at its most unsettling when it testifies to the ways that these demands destroy lives. (It should be noted that the film, as its screenplay award at the 2016 Venice Film Festival indicates, may be partially fictionalized, though nothing on screen is directly indicative of this.) Huzhou’s workers are preyed on by pyramid schemes and consumed by violence, alcoholism, and gambling addictions. When Ling Ling, a seamstress, confronts her husband about his attempt to financially cut her off (for unknown reasons), he beats, chokes, and threatens her in front of his friends. Like the rest of the film’s subjects, her life is only glimpsed through narrative threads that surface, quickly dissipate, and occasionally reemerge. It’s not for another hour that we see her again, back with her husband, both of them struggling for money.
Its lack of contextualization and studied sense of distance would suggest a film concerned mostly with the conveyance of unfiltered information, but Bitter Money brings to the screen a profound sense of heart and rage. Filmmaker and critic Thom Andersen once wrote that Wang’s Three Sisters contains a “fire in every shot,” a clawing, quiet sense of yearning beyond its subjects’ squalid conditions. It’s a rare effect common to Wang’s documentaries: the frightening, elemental sense of people trying to survive a world designed to brutalize them. Bitter Money is similarly alive with such fire. Around an extended sequence inside the overstuffed buses and trains that people ride from the countryside to Huzhou, the camera jams itself into corners, aisles, and bathrooms filled with travelers who couldn’t get a seat, and for a period just captures people sleeping. There’s nothing comforting in their slumber; they appear exposed, burdened by the weight of the degrading, uncertain life to come, but it feels poetically and inextricably human.
This sequence exemplifies the alchemical nature of Bitter Money, which straddles a line between raw information and a formed, if open-ended, narrative. Wang’s formal twist is to allow his audience to sense the movement across this line; we’re made to feel that we’re witnessing the whole overwhelming system at work even as the documentary doesn’t abandon a subjective, individual sense of the damages that said system reaps. It’s perhaps this simultaneous feeling of watching people withering under the weight of it all and exercising small-scale acts of survival that makes the atrocities that Wang depicts feel crushing but never deadening.
One could cynically react to Bitter Money by mistaking its formal complexities and unsettling perspective for iciness or dumbly exploitative filmmaking. This misses the point. Grace echoes when people refuse brutality. The film often homes in on small moments that deepen its subjects’ sense of humanity, from talk of home villages and mirthful banter in dormitories to someone’s moving penchant for wearing brightly colored polos within the not-so-bright world of Huzhou. These details aren’t part of a salvific vision, but they’re markers of people’s refusal to be quashed. It’s resistance—not to the system, but its inevitable desire to destroy. And that’s already a lot to hope for.