MTV Documentary Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Kingdon
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/7/21
Opens: October 8, 2021

When I went to China in 1985 with a group of high school teachers and college professors, people back home looked upon me as a hero. “That guy went to China,” I overheard, as I did similar statements, making me feel like a movie star. Similarly in China, our group got stares from people even in the two principal cities of Beijing and Shanghai. “Check out those funny-looking westerners,” I could imagine their saying. When I gave a simple slide show, not a film, just a little slide show in the local library. I had quite an audience. There’s nothing like being among the first to do something, however undramatic these doings seem now.

What struck me most about China’s two principal cities is that they appeared as undramatic as, say, Sioux Falls or Tuscaloosa. Walking the “Fifth Avenue” of Shanghai felt like being covered in gray paint, or at least having my glasses tinted. There were no street lights. The department stores had some rags in the window. Chinese people were not allowed to shop in the tourist stores, and even they were as dull as a Woolworth Five-and-Dime establishment. The best hotels aspired to three-star quality.

Were I to return to China now, I would be think I am in a different country, and that’s just in thirty-five years, which goes to show, as we learn from books about why some countries are prosperous while others are in the stone age, that what counts in making progress is the ideology of government more than a nation’s natural resources. A country that is open to trade will be on the way up, and few other places in world history have advanced so quickly as the People’s Republic. Mao’s picture is still highlighted in Tiananmin Square and the governing leaders are still called members of the Communist party, but China, like Hong Kong, now appears as capitalistic as any place in the West.

Make no mistake: China is and will be a (hopefully peaceful) competitor with the U.S., an idea which would have seemed bizarre 30 years ago. As the president of one Chinese corporation puts it, China is a productive society, ever expanding, but its consumption falls below that of the U.S. He believes that in time, a typical Chinese individual will be consuming five times as much as the average American. Jessica Kingdom directs this unusual film without a voiceover, without narration, letting the vignettes reveals the job she intends to pass on. Though the cities in which the hotels, the colleges, the fine restaurants take place are not mentioned, we note that this has been filmed by Nathan Truesdell in fifty-one locations, some chapters more involving than others.

Least riveting are the scenes of factories which seem to have sprung up to take the place of the factories that we in America have lost at great cost to many unskilled and semiskilled in our own working classes. The thought of working in one is still scary, at least to educated people, but even in China, sweatshops supposedly do not exist. We see big, bright, shiny working spaces not unlike the homes of our own Amazon workers, with plastic popping up everywhere—in bottles, in cops, all belching out of machines and looking like so much trash.

One step above factories (or maybe not), some available jobs are being hawked, paying $2.36 an hour—hardly enough to make anyone think that in time Chinese will be consuming five times as much as Americans. No tattoos allowed (good to hear) and you must be between eighteen and thirty-eight. In fact, not one day older than thirty-eight. Hawkers make the jobs sound enticing by noting that the work spaces are air conditioned and for many jobs, you can be seated! Dormitories will house no more than eight workers each.

Of special interest are the training schools for workers in the luxury trade. The m.c. at one school for salespeople, almost all women, spends considerable time dealing with hugging. How do you hug, when Chinese are people who do not hug? You’re going to be in contract with folks from different cultures, so…don’t raise your arms too close to your target, but let the hugger know what’s going to happen by raising first one arm and then another several feet away. The hotel industry employees enjoy tutorials on French desserts, the employees actually using knives and forks and looking as though they had never seen silverware before. One employee informs the group that the glasses for wine are molded in such a way that Europeans with their big noses do not have to humiliate themselves when downing their Dom Perignon.

Jessica Kingdon’s first full-length documentary shows us that China is no longer a sleeping giant but one which has arisen, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, catching up to us in America at our own game.

96 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

Facebook Comments

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *