Even prior to the Ming Dynastic Era, Huzhou was known as a center of the silk trade and for the production of ink brushes. Somewhat logically, it is now a regional hub of the Chinese textile industry, but that does not necessarily make it a fun place to live and work—quite the contrary, in fact. Wang Bing documents the hardscrabble lives of a number of migrant workers laboring away in Huzhou’s sweatshop-like workshops in Bitter Money, which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.
There is more “reality” in Wang Bing’s body of work than the entire reality television genre, in toto. Yet, Bitter Money could almost be considered his Real World, given how much of it is confined to the dilapidated dormitory provided by the workshop owner for his employees. Initially, we meet two teen cousins as they take the long rail passage from Yunnan to Huzhou in search of work, but Wang will only follow them for so long. Like Linklater’s Slacker, he will hop from one textile worker to another that might happen to cross their paths. It looks random, but he seems to have inside info telling him when to jump. As a result, he captures a nasty confrontation between twenty-five-year-old Ling Ling and her defiantly unsupportive (and physically violent) husband Erzi.
By far, Ling Ling and Erzi represents the most extreme case in Bitter Money. Most of the dormitory residents are reasonably healthy, undeniably hardworking, and in some instances maybe even somewhat happy. Two teenage sisters certainly look and sound like teens you might meet anywhere else in the world, but it is a shame they aren’t in high school, where they could better enjoy gossiping about boys. However, hard-drinking Huang Lei is another hard case. Whether the boss’s refusal to pay him until he sobers up is protective or exploitative is a highly debatable question.
Frankly, there is more such ambiguity in Bitter Money than most of Wang’s uncompromisingly soul-crushing documentaries. Nobody appears to be making much money out of textiles, unless it is the “big factories” that factor so prominently in rumors throughout the film. From what the audience can pick up on, the margins just sound punishing. Yet people keep coming and they keep finding work, albeit at wages not far above subsistence level.