Lin Dalin (Anlian Yao) is a man under a lot of pressure, the boss of a toy factory in Shenzen, south-eastern China, which he has successfully run for 20 years, he is now facing the effects of an economic downturn. He is late in paying his workers, some of whom are growing restless and set fire to a car in protest outside the factory gates (a sight which opens the film and sets the stage for growing unrest).
As a result of the lack of orders coming in a desperate Lin takes an order with a very low profit margin from an international client, which his stressed factory manager (Liang Chen) warns him they cannot possibly fulfil, forcing his workers to work illegal overtime in order to try and fulfil it. Meanwhile the minimum wages are rising and the workers are become more aware of their rights and demanding better working conditions.
To add to the mounting pressure a young undercover journalist Ai Jing (Yan Tang) enters the factory to report on the working conditions of the factory, as one of the many ‘blood and sweat’ factories in the region that is believed to be exploiting workers, resulting in some very bad PR for the factory and a worried CEO and multinational client.
As one of Lin’s peers tells him entering the manufacturing business is like entering ‘hell’ and second time director Wei Zhang skilfully shows us just what a hell it can be to maintain the ‘Made in China’ tag. Zhang and Yao, who deservedly won ‘best actor’ at the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival, presents us with a nuanced and complex portrait of an increasingly vulnerable man in a tough role that has been demonised by the media.
Mention must be made also of Liang Chen, who brilliantly portrays the struggle of being caught between forcing the workers to work harder and being like a father to them. In one scene comically putting on a gruff voice to order the workers, that doesn’t suit him at all.
The films shows how much Lin struggles with his unenvious role caught between wanting to keep the factory going in China at whatever cost, trying to making a profit to provide for his family (his daughter has an expensive US education), investing in creating his own brand of Chinese created toy, and finally keeping the workers happy and healthy.
And we see that he really does care for his workers, when one long-time worker falls ill for inhaling factory chemicals, he funds her medical care despite having to sell his own house. We also see how much he cares about keeping industry going in China so that the workers can still have their jobs, whilst his peers have moved to places like Myanmar, where there are no labour laws, to keep costs low. As he implores there used to be 2,000 factories in Shenzen and now there are only 200, and “where would we be without the factories?”
Despite his concern for his workers, the demands of the multinational company to meet their strict deadlines, the lack of profit, the rising cost of raw materials, the bad PR; all stack up against Lin resulting in a final dénouement in which Lin makes the unfairness of the situation clear to his workers in an eloquent speech set in a courthouse (brought there by workers demanding back pay).
And so the evil boss is made human (painfully so) and even the well-meaning journalist (acting as a proxy for the liberal viewer) has to admit that things are not as simple as they at first seem. There are larger forces at work here, namely the multinational western companies which create such pressure by demanding such low profit margins. And so the film suggests, Westerners have a big part to play in Chinese human rights violations.
On a visual level the film excels in portraying the large-scale mechanical operations of the factory, with sweeping overhead shots by German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier taking in the repetitive assembly line toil of factory work.
There a few lowlights as the acting is from a largely non-professional cast (who are actually factory workers), only the four leads were professional , there are a few over-acted moments. But overall this is a sensitive Ken Loachian-style look at the myriad effects of an economic downturn and globalisation, and a film which deserves a wider audience so that next time you read a media report on workers exploitation you don’t just blame the boss.