The latest winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory is a complex and brilliant examination of a clash of cultures and management styles and the diminishment of a class of workers having to grovel for jobs they cannot do without.
In 2014, the recently closed GM factory in Moraine, Ohio, was acquired and reopened by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company; many of the former GM employees, often out of regular work since the closure in 2008, would occupy new jobs there. While the film depicts clashes between the Moraine locals and the Chinese employees flown in to supervise them, it also ensures that it doesn’t accept any indulgence in xenophobia, instead showing employees of both nationalities spending leisure time together and getting along. The film is less interested in moderating the clash between the Chinese and American supervisors – a trip to a Chinese plant, intended to show the Americans how things should be done, with robotic employees, militaristic roll calls and company songs, long hours, hardly any days off, non-existent safety standards and a focus on quantity of production over quality, is met with raised eyebrows by all but one conspicuously enthusiastic visitor. That those unconvinced bosses are eventually replaced by more Chinese overseers is no surprise – nor is it a surprise that a bubbling movement to unionise the Moraine workers is suppressed by an appeasing extra couple of dollars of pay – that still keeps salaries at half of what they’d been at GM – and an expensive propaganda campaign that successfully scares most of the employees into voting against unionisation.
There’s a vast amount going on in this concise and potent film, and Reichert and Bognar work magic to marshal a sprawling web of people, plots and themes, and to allow the workers to narrate their own story smoothly and with little outside help (just a few lines of superimposed text here and there). It’s available on Netflix, and you should not miss out on it.
An utterly charming, friendly rom-com set in and amongst the very wealthiest of the Singaporean elite, Crazy Rich Asians is also full of odd tensions and problematic complexities. In one sense a highly specifically Chinese story of a second-generation American immigrant’s return to Asia and the conflict she experiences in negotiating her way into a world that finds her somewhat unwelcome; on the other a genre comedy that would feel no different were the characters all white. It’s a friction that bubbles under everything, but the film is so light and likeable that it never spoils anything.
We find Michelle Yeoh’s performance as the intimidating mother-in-law a delight, her character completely avoiding the one-dimensional dragon mom stereotype. On the other hand, there are stereotypes in which the film does indulge, though we disagree on how critical we should be of that. Thinking back to Searching, Mike feels that that film’s joy of seeing ethnicity have no bearing at all on anything is not replicated here, as the film’s insistence on themes of separation from one’s background and identity come into conflict with its desire to be no different from any generic white rom-com. Jose doesn’t find this an issue, instead sinking into the diasporic aura of the film. We discuss the film’s occasional TV movie feel, its use of music, its depiction of class through accents, and the way the opening sets up a much darker, more subversive film than we get.
And above all, it’s really, really funny.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The Rock is the action star of the moment and despite Skyscraper‘s lacklustre title, we enjoy his latest vehicle a lot. It’s mechanical, predictable, corporate, obvious, and not even shot and edited that well, but we don’t really care. It features a gem of a setting, a great central performance from an enormously likeable star, depicts disability in a remarkably sensitive way, generates decent threat and tension despite obvious flaws in how it does so, is wholesome as hell, and Mike wants The Rock to be his dad.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Mike’s brother corrects our pronunciation of director Jia Zhangke’s name, helping us settle into a discussion of his ambitious, deeply moving tale of friendship and loss that spans two and a half decades. We talk about motifs of keys and coats, themes of capitalism and home, the changing aspect ratios and clarity of the image, the documentary feel to its portrayal of Fenyang and the way of life there, and much more besides. We admire almost everything and still can’t get Go West out of our heads.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.