Micha Peled uses a tried-and-true device in his documentary, CHINA BLUE, contrasting those at the top of the food chain, in this case the Chinese new economy, with those at the top. Not only does he use this method with startling effectiveness, it may well have been the only way to bring home to audiences in first and even second-world countries the causes and effects of the desperate lives of all concerned. Of course, desperation is a relative term.
The scope is enormous. As the opening titles explain, the largest migration in history is going on in China, 130 million people moving from the countryside into the new industrial workforce that services the global economy. Peled uses two primary subjects to focus on the social and economic implications of this migration. There’s Mr. Lam, the owner of a factory that exports blue jeans (hence the title) all over the world. He is known for bringing in orders on time and on budget. At the other end of the spectrum is Jasmine, the country girl who travels 2000 miles to work at the factory, starting as a thread-cutter, the lowest rung on the totem pole. The camera follows her through her first weeks at the factory and, through her, the audience sees in stark detail the conditions that this new economy demands. She lives in a factory dormitory room with a dozen other workers. Her shift starts at 8am, overtime starts at 7pm, and she is expected to stay at her workbench until dismissed by her supervisor, even if that dismissal is not until the next morning. One of the more disturbing images from the film is of workers useing clothespins to keep their eyes open.
It’s easy to fault Mr. Lam for squeezing his employees for the most work for the least pay, but Peled in making his point about the global economy is careful to show not just Lam enjoying his rooftop garden, but also the negotiations between Lam and buyers from abroad, who make demands for lower prices that both parties know another factory would be happy to meet. And this is where the film is at its very best. Inhumane working conditions and a boss willing to exploit a cowed workforce is not a new story. Peled gets at the underlying reasons for this and lays them out with the same meticulous care. If Mr. Lam fails to get the contract, Jasmine and her co-workers also lose money with reduced hours or even layoffs. Without regulation, their own best interests lie squarely with coming through again and again despite exhaustion or illness or both. It suddenly becomes obvious why everyone lies to outside inspectors checking on the working conditions. There is an astonishing candor from all concerned in both word and deed. The result plays like a docudrama with such scenes as workers, pushed to the edge after months of no pay, threatening on camera to strike, an action that could get them worse than fired.
Mr. Lam’s isn’t entirely let off the hook, but he himself is an interesting dichotomy. He has great pride in how far both he and his country have come following Chairman Deng’s philosophy that to grow rich is glorious. And it’s impressive in both cases, as Lam tells the camera that 20 years ago he rode a bicycle and now he has a luxury car. He is a living metaphor for the emerging upper-middle class in the same way Jasmine is the living metaphor for the exploited working classes. His disdain for her and her kind, country folk with, according to him, no work ethic who are no better than animals, is at odds with Jasmine’s equally urgent desire to succeed so that she can help her family, so that they won’t be disappointed in her. Bad food and no sleep and fines for being late added to the deductions from her already small salary for that bad food and even the bucket she must use to carry hot water to her room to wash, seem more than this one girl barely into her teens can bear, and yet she does, if with less and less cheerfulness, but with a consistent willingness and a brave smile that is at once inspirational and heart-breaking.
CHINA BLUE is in the same category as Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” and other scathing exposes from America’s own less than noble economic past. Patently angry, but never strident, this film is as intelligent as it is jarring, mixing sensitivity with outrage while never letting the audience off the hook. Even if they’re not wearing jeans.