“Bitter Money” (苦钱, Kǔ Qián), according to director Wang Bing, is a phrase on the rise. It may be that money is rarely sweet, but this kind is particularly hard to swallow. Not only is the youth of China thrown out of its villages towards the inferno of city industry, living alone and away from home, but finds nothing more than exploitation, drudgery and false promise when it gets there. Wang’s trademark immersive detachment captures the frustrating inertia of the young men and women of the modern China who find themselves very definitely at the bottom of a heap and consistently betrayed by a failed ideology.
Wang opens in the country with a trio of hopeful youngsters about to leave everything behind for the bright promise of a better life for themselves and their families bought with city money. They board a bus, and then a train, and then interminable hours later arrive in Huzhou, the centre of the modern garment trade. The girls find work in a small workshop which, all things considered, might not seem so bad save that it provides only extremely low pay and offers no guarantees.
Shifting away from the recent arrivals, Wang’s camera locks onto the melancholy figure of 25-year-old Ling Ling who wants to borrow it as ally in confronting her coldhearted husband who threw her out after she complained about his beatings and is now so resentful that she’s stayed away too long that he refuses to talk to her. Ling Ling’s attitude to her unhappy marriage speaks volumes about the oppressive, patriarchal world of Huzhou where physical strength and dexterity are the only real currencies.
Lamenting her fate to coworker, Ling Ling affirms that domestic violence is just a part of life and believes that women have a duty to “submit” to their husbands’ rages – after all, “no woman can beat a man”. Her husband, Erzi, is proud and insecure. He views his wife’s behaviour as a slight against him and is resolved to be rid of her, loudly threatening her life in front of half the neighbourhood guys each of whom gets up and abandons their mahjong game after sensing that something is about to kick off. Despite the disdain with which the other men treat his overt violence towards his wife, Erzi is convinced his “manly” behaviour is impressive and thinks nothing of grabbing his wife by the throat in full view of Wang’s camera which remains a purely passive presence despite this ongoing threat.
Ling Ling, however, has few real choices left to her. She can’t survive alone in this environment and has nowhere else to go. In a pattern repeated across the nation, Ling Ling’s son is being raised in the country while she and her husband try to make a go of things in the city. Her major argument with Erzi is that he kicked her out with no money and won’t even give her anything for their son. Yet a later scene shows them together again, seemingly “happier” even whilst they to continue to bicker about money if in a less obviously destructive way.
Most of the other workers are not quite as trapped as Ling Ling, but are caught by a feeling of threat and desperation which encourages them to push themselves beyond the limits of human endurance while their bosses reap the profits. One minute the garment workshop is in the hole because they backed a product which isn’t selling, and the next it’s doing so well that the “slow” workers are being laid off in favour of the more “efficient”. It goes without saying that work in these small workshops is almost entirely unregulated with very few enforceable labour rights which means the boss is free to hire and fire as he sees fit. Some consider “investing” in pyramid schemes despite an awareness of their risks in the belief that they could beat the system if they get out fast enough while others resolve to give up and go home to the comparative comforts of the country.
One worker retreats into drink, only for his boss to tell him he’s holding back his wages for his own good which seems like a dubious claim at best. The workers regard the “big factories” with fear and awe, enemies of their current establishments but perhaps also offering better opportunities if also requiring a further fall into the industrial inferno. With little else on offer, “bitter money” is all there seems to be but its rewards are scant and its toll heavy. The teenage girl we first meet full of excitement and enthusiasm is eventually worn down, realising she’s worked all these months and earned barely anything. Wang’s detachment mirrors that of his protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent social system the ongoing violence of which it proves almost impossible to escape.