China was noticeable by its absence at the Academy Awards gala in Los Angeles on February 9th, 2020. Even if there had been more Chinese product in the pipeline, it is likely that South Korea still would have stolen the show. Few films made in Asia were nominated this year, but Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, gamely made up for that with a trifecta sweep of best film, best director, and best screenplay, in addition to being named best international film.
It’s nice to see the long-struggling, idealistic Korean director Bong belatedly enjoying his day in the limelight. Despite Korea’s efflorescence as a cinema powerhouse, barriers in language, culture, and distribution deals have left its vernacular film output generally underappreciated beyond the shores of the East Sea.
It wasn’t just China that got outshined by South Korea this year, however. The best productions of the hometown host, team Hollywood, also fell to the bolt from the blue of Korean cinematic brilliance.
The lone exception to China’s eclipse at this year’s Oscars is American Factory, the winner for best documentary. It’s not a Chinese film, but it speaks volumes about China in a nuanced way that is all too rare these days.
American Factory depicts life on the front line of US-Chinese business dealings at a time when the sturdy fabric of US-China cooperation is torn and fraying.
Part of the film’s enigmatic charm lies in its open-minded ambiguity.
Directors Julia Reichart and Steven Bognaar don’t sugarcoat the difficulties of cross-cultural dealings, but rather show, in painstaking detail, how trust can be won (and lost) again and again.
They remind us that trade wars and statistics aside, at the core, every trade deal and industrial investment is first and foremost about people, a sum of unique personalities and idiosyncratic individuals trying to do their thing and get by.
American Factory is a case study of Chinese industrial investment in the forlorn US hinterland. The access the directors enjoy inside the Fuyao Glass factory near Dayton, Ohio is extraordinary, as demonstrated by top-notch Chinese language interviews from Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li.
The film’s producers are outsiders to Hollywood but possess star power second-to-none. Barack and Michelle Obama get due credit for making make this daunting film happen. But it was pointedly the humble tenacity of American and Chinese directors, each working in their own language to patiently record scenes of everyday life with uncommon artfulness over a three-year period, that was the key.
Good documentaries involve resourcefulness, artful editing, suspended judgement, and the patience of saints.
The vicissitudes of life in small-town Ohio start with the closing of an American-owned factory. It’s a sad yet an increasingly common sight in a Rust Belt swirling with disruption wrought by companies chasing lower wages within complex global supply chains and the use of robots to replace humans on the factory floor.
After seeing the despair that comes from losing not just jobs, but even homes and cars, it is exhilarating to see a derelict factory brought back to life, providing continuity and economic lifeblood to a broken community.
If the movie stopped there, it would have been a one-sided love letter to China. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the ruthless global supply chain, and Fuyao Glass, like most successful companies, is bent on keeping expenses down to be profitable and competitive.
The film raises difficult questions. Is there a price to being bailed out? Must one surrender autonomy and pride? What about lax safety standards, unpaid overtime, and favoritism?
Many American businesses are hostile towards union organization; indeed, the input of an American “Union Avoidance Consultant” hired by Fuyao shows how money trumps truth in today’s America.
The old school union organizers find plenty of grist to fire up grassroots fervor in their offensive against a foreign-owned factory that would rather close up shop than unionize.
The twists and turns of the documentary are both commonplace and riveting. Earnest American workers with whom the viewer has come to identify are abruptly fired and removed from the story line. The Chinese manager, separated from his family for an annual visit, works longer hours and lives a more harried, bare-bones existence than even the hardest working Americans.
When a delegation of American workers get “treated” to a tour of the home factory in Fujian, China, the wonder and puzzlement in their eyes reminds us that China and the US, despite tight economic linkages, remain oceans apart in culture and lifestyle.
It’s not difficult to feel a pang of sadness for the hard-working African-American worker, who we know in advance will be fired for reasons that seem callous and inadequate, but it’s a counterintuitive coup when the directors urge us to consider the plight of the decisive, at times ruthless, sad-faced CEO who finds happiness elusive.
American Factory offers much grist to chew on at a time when US-China film co-productions are in a lull.
The breezy, dizzy days of US and China throwing money at one another and making millions in the process may be over, for the world as we knew it before the advent of the highly contagious coronavirus Covid-19 is receding into the past.
Hollywood’s romancing of China and China’s romancing of Hollywood are both on hold.
During this forced time-out, China’s theatres have been shuttered, and the jets flying execs, stars, and producers back and forth between the world’s biggest and second biggest film market have been largely stilled.
It’s a time of battening down the hatches, but the human desire to tell and be told stories is not easy to dismiss. Even now, films streamed online and viewed on TV continue to provide diversion, solace, and reflection during this time of a looming pandemic.
After quarantines are lifted and the public health peril recedes, there will surely be new opportunities, new challenges, and unexpected shifts in the marketplace. There are many good stories waiting to be told, and a market exists for those who can effectively tell them.