Generally speaking, capitalists get short shrift in Western cinema. Other than in that slight anomaly that was the ‘80s when “greed was good” and it became semi-acceptable to do despicable things so long as you made despicable amounts of money, movies side with the dispossessed and downtrodden. Like the mill owners of nineteenth century novels, fat cat factory owners are stereotypically evil to the point where they might as well be ripping their employees heads off and sucking their blood out like lobster meat. Zhang Wei’s Factory Boss (打工老板, Dagong Laoban) however, attempts to redeem this much maligned figure by pointing out that it’s pretty tough at the top too.
Shenzhen used to have over 1000 toy factories, but following the worldwide financial crisis, there are barely 100 left. Dalin is one of the lucky ones still holding out, if just barely. The employees haven’t been paid in a couple of months and there are debts outstanding which are only being held at bay thanks to a series of promises. The boss, Lin Dalin, has negotiated a massive deal to manufacture a large order for an American company which just might save them but he’s also biting off a little more than he can chew. The workforce are starting to get antsy – they’ve already burnt a car on the forecourt and some are talking about a walkout. To get this order through he’ll have to ask for even more from his already over stretched employees.
Just around this time, a young, ambitious reporter has developed a bee in her bonnet about workers’ rights at the local factories and has taken an undercover job at Dalin hoping to expose some of its shortcomings to the outside world. What she finds is worse than she’d ever imagined – faulty ventilation systems, air thick with the sickening smell of melting plastic, illegal “overtime” schedules, no breaks, shortened lunch times and a culture of shame and bullying intended to cow workers into playing along.
The film encourages us to see Lin as a generally “good” person. It says he wasn’t like this prior to the financial collapse and that it’s the current environment that has turned him into a ruthless exploiter of the “tools” at his disposal – i.e. his employees. Following on from the communist system, factories are still run like work groups where the employee base becomes a surrogate family with everyone living in shared workers accommodation on the complex. The workers also get lunch at the factory (but this comes out of their final pay).
Lin, like a feudal lord, sees himself as a paternal figure who has a duty to protect these people, but this means ensuring the factory’s survival. This is how he justifies his increasingly exploitative behaviour to himself, that if the factory goes under all of these people, and some of them are now old having worked there for 25+ years, will lose their jobs and with all the other factories in the same position, they will be left with nothing.
However, though Lin never behaves in an extravagant or intimidating fashion, it is also true that he lives all alone in a mansion drinking imported wine and chatting to his daughter via a shiny macbook while she studies overseas. He complains there’s little profit in his business these days, but he doesn’t seem to be tightening his own belt while his employees worry about their futures.
One of Lin’s friends has sold his local factory and relocated to Burma where the labour is even cheaper and there are even fewer labour laws. Lin is reluctant because he wants to make his nation great again and reverse the meaning attached to the phrase “Made in China” whilst also helping to build a better future for the people under his care but he is also at the mercy of market forces.
Thanks to a late in the game change of sympathies from our lady reporter, we’re pointed towards the real villains which would be the international corporations who manufacture in China because it’s cheaper but are squeamish about the country’s treatment of the working classes. These companies say they enforce strict conditions and make personal factory inspections, but their commitment is only really halfhearted. They know the reason why the labour is so cheap, but they drive the prices down anyway preaching against sweatshops but knowing, economically speaking, that there is no Earthly way these targets can be met on time and on budget with workers’ rights fully respected to the degree stated in their own mission statements. As soon as labour laws are revised in China and wages necessarily rise, they will simply switch to using cheaper labour forces in less developed parts of the world.
To be frank, this is just capitalism. A business is a business and each will constantly be looking to maximise their own profit margin. They will push and push until they feel resistance, and then they will push some more to find out how much their opponents will push back. No matter which way you spin it, the little guys will pay. Yes, Lin too is a victim, but it’s a little rich to pretend the consequences for a man like him are the same as they are for his employees. China has moved from the “Iron Rice Bowl” system of guaranteed lifetime employment to the relative insecurity of global capitalist society but its modernisation has been so rapid that the base line workers have been left with the rawest deal – poor pay and conditions coupled with the constant pressure of possibly being let go or being forced into exploitative arrangements just to keep a job which barely feeds you.
Factory Boss is an interestingly constructed look at the little seen life of the everyday factory which has a healthy level of naturalistic feeling detail. Zhang does however fall into a slightly didactic approach, particularly in his hagiographic depiction of Lin, and some of the later monologues appear oddly theatrical in contrast to the straightforward nature of the rest of the film. He catches China in the midst of its transformation, trapped in a moment of indecision as it finds itself cast in the role of middle man offering its services in the service of the enterprise of others while the individual dreams of men like Lin who long to set up on their own are crushed by forces beyond their control. Redeeming the figure of the fat cat is a nice a idea and Zhang certainly succeeds in casting Lin as a decent man corrupted by circumstance but his central message that the middle man needs love too and the real mean daddies are greedy corporate overlords is one which, true as it may be, can’t help feeling a little trite.
Reviewed as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2016.