In a street market in China, factory recruiters with loudspeakers compete for the attention of job seekers, yelling like they’re selling vegetables: “Seating working available!” “Air conditioning!” Others list restrictions: “No tattoos. No hair dye.” One advertises a salary: $2.99 (£2.21) an hour. Outside the market, inspirational slogans are plastered across billboards extolling the Chinese dream. “Work hard and all your dreams will come true.” When you’re paid $2.99, that’s a lot of hard work.
So begins this brilliant documentary by Chinese-American director Jessica Kingdon, which slyly observes China’s transition from the world’s factory to a massive consumer society. It’s a film in the tradition of Koyaanisqatsi or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread. Shot in more than 50 locations in China, it splits more or less into three sections: factory workers, China’s growing middle class and the filthy-rich elite. There’s no voiceover or obvious narrative, just a stream of vignettes – at times an almost surreal compilation of images strung together.
There’s an unforgettable scene in a factory where female staff put the finishing touches to high-end sex dolls; deep in concentration, they meticulously hand-paint pink nipples. It’s sort of hilarious; one woman holds a doll’s legs akimbo as she leans in to trim its bikini line. But then, a colleague picks up a phallic-looking hot iron and burns a hole into the plastic flesh. It’s a disturbing image and made me think of the men who buy these anatomically freakish sex dolls. Then more practical concerns arise: where is this worker’s protective gear?
Fake Christmas trees, jeans, squirty dispensers for cosmetics, unicorn tat, Make America Great Again merch (oh, the irony) – we watch the dizzying production line of capitalist excess. Nothing screams futility and waste like plastic mineral water bottles popping out of a factory machine by the hundreds. Through it all composer Dan Deacon’s string-heavy score strikes a cautionary note. There’s a lot of humour in the sections on China’s middle class and super-wealthy. In one semi-excruciating scene pupils at a butler school are instructed in how to take crap from a boss: “No matter how he humiliates you, pretend to be obedient.”
Part of the film’s genius is in how the images are put together, sometimes to absurd effect, at other times unnervingly. The system is dehumanising but we see the emotions of the humans inside it. It’s a fascinating film about China that has universal things to say about income inequality and aspiration everywhere: how we’re all sold a dream that’s out of the reach of most.