Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 2019. Higher Ground Productions, Participant. Cinematography by Steven Bognar, Aubrey Keith, Jeff Reichert, Julia Reichert, Erick Stoll. Produced by Steven Bognar, Julie Parker Benello, Jeff Reichert, Julia Reichert. Music by Chad Cannon. Film Editing by Lindsay Utz. Academy Awards 2019. Gotham Awards 2019. Independent Spirit Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2019. Online Film Critics Awards 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
In 2008, GM closes a plant in Dayton, Ohio and thousands of employees lose their jobs, leading to foreclosures on houses and years of unemployment for many of them. In 2010, the Chinese auto glass manufacturing company Fuyao decides to step in and build a factory where GM’s once stood, giving employment opportunities back to a place that was threatening to turn into a ghost town and providing hope for so many who had lost it. The opening of the plant also provides the pleasure of cross-cultural learning, as Fuyao has sent a few hundred employees over from China to learn the American way of life and train their hosts on how to produce a top quality product at the most efficient rate that would please their seemingly benevolent founder Cho Tak Wong. The new factory gleams with its modern conveniences rendered in bright colours, and it seems that the devastation of the 2008 economic crisis has been reversed, while the American employees who visit China are treated to dazzling New Year’s parties and tour a very busy and productive factory. Time presses on, however, and there are some very dark aspects of this imported American dream that cannot be ignored, which become of greater concern as pressure mounts to produce more at a higher profit while employee concerns decrease in value: the Dayton workers are glad to be working again but are doing so at less than half the hourly wage they were earning a decade earlier, and this is not lost on them. Wong has come to America hoping to build a factory in much the same way he does in China, which means avoiding American health and safety protocols as much as possible and avoiding any possibility of the employees unionizing (the Chinese employees speak of only visiting their families a few days a year, and don’t seem to do so in the spirit of rebellion, or do they?). This riveting film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tears through all polite double-speak and presents its case with shocking frankness while keeping its bias at a minimum: it would be easy to demonize the invading Chinese labour force as taking advantage of desperate people in desperate circumstances, but the filmmakers focus on the tragedy of two different cultures who probably mean to find the middle of the road but very likely can’t. Eventually, the Chinese come to be seen as unethical by the Americans, who view the workers in their new country as lazy and selfish, and in focusing on a series of key figures in the development of this flawed project, Bognar and Reichert come up with something that represents a much larger tragedy for people who are still trying to recover from the losses of years earlier.