In a street market in China, factory recruiters with loudspeakers vie for the attention of job seekers, shouting as if they were selling vegetables: “Jobs available!” “Air conditioner!” Others list restrictions: “No tattoos. No hair dye. One advertises a wage: $2.99 (£2.21) an hour. Outside the market, inspirational slogans are plastered on billboards extolling the Chinese Dream. “Work hard and all your dreams will come true.” When you get paid $2.99, that’s a lot of hard work.
So begins this brilliant documentary by Chinese-American director Jessica Kingdon, who slyly observes China’s transition from global factory to mass consumer society. It’s a film in the tradition of Koyaanisqatsi or Our Daily Bread by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Filmed in more than 50 locations in China, it is more or less divided into three sections: factory workers, China’s growing middle class and the dirty and wealthy elite. There’s no obvious voiceover or narrative, just a stream of vignettes – sometimes an almost surreal compilation of strung together footage.
There’s an unforgettable scene in a factory where female staff are putting the finishing touches on high-end sex dolls; Deeply focused, they meticulously hand paint pink nipples. It’s kind of hilarious; a woman holds a doll’s legs akimbo as she bends over to cut her bikini line. But then a co-worker takes a phallic-looking hot iron and burns a hole in the plastic flesh. It’s a disturbing image that made me think of men buying these anatomically weird sex dolls. More practical concerns then arise: where is this worker’s protective equipment?
Fake Christmas trees, jeans, squirty cosmetics dispensers, unicorn tattoos, Make America Great Again merch (oh, the irony) – we’re looking at the dizzying production line of capitalist excess. Nothing screams futility and waste like plastic mineral water bottles pouring out by the hundreds from a factory machine. Through it all, composer Dan Deacon’s heavy string score is a cautionary tale. There is a lot of humor in the sections on the middle class and the super-rich in China. In a semi-excruciating scene, students at a butler school learn to take bullshit from a boss: “No matter how he humiliates you, pretend to be obedient.”
Part of the film’s genius lies in the way the images are put together, sometimes to absurd effect, at other times unnervingly. The system is dehumanizing but we see the emotions of the humans inside. It’s a compelling film about China that has universal things to say about income inequality and aspirations everywhere: how we’re all sold a dream that’s out of reach for most.