Review: “Factory Boss” Offers a Sympathetic But Nuanced View of Chinese Factory Managers

While ultimately sympathetic to those who run China’s factories, “Factory Boss” is worth a watch for good acting and cinematic prowess.

By , 17 Jul 23 22:04 GMT
Courtesy of ShenZhen HuaHao Film & Media Co., Ltd.

Zhang Wei’s Factory Boss is, in many ways, remarkable. Though the movie has propagandistic elements, it still tells a compelling story.

That narrative follows Lin Dalian, the owner of a doll factory in Shenzhen. Lin’s factory is struggling after more than six months without work. This changes when Lin takes on a large order from an American company. Whereas Lin previously had no work, now he tries to push his employees to work faster and harder to meet the order’s deadline.

Inevitably, this pushes his workers to a breaking point, leading to a strike. While contending with this, Lin also tries to fend off reports from the media that his factory is a sweatshop, and his own self-doubt stemming from another factory boss peer’s suicide. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lin, one of the journalists publishing negative reports on his company works undercover within his management.

Given director Zhang Wei’s own background as an entrepreneur, the film’s  view into the life of a factory boss feels quite sympathetic.The movie shows Lin as caring for and wanting the best for his workers, particularly as some of his younger workers grew up in the factory.

Courtesy of ShenZhen HuaHao Film & Media Co., Ltd.

At the same time, Factory Boss depicts Lin as “knowing best” in a way that his workers do not. One early scene shows Lin deducting a worker’s pay in a rage after a needle goes missing from a sewing machine, only later to frame Lin’s temper tantrum as aimed at the greater good—if a needle in a doll that ends up in the hands of an American child, the factory would lose all future orders.

The film does show workers in a sympathetic light, in that they simply want what is best for themselves—but it also implies that they are too simplistic and need a guiding figure like Lin To some extent, the film portrays Lin as a morally ambiguous hero, in that he skirts labor laws, and is reluctant to pay workers more because this will cut into his already thin margins.

Lin also comes off as a patriot. Lin maintains production in China rather than relocating to Myanmar, where labor costs are cheaper and there are fewer labor protections. This is out of a desire to both maintain the “Made in China” brand and allow for Chinese brands to become internationally recognized. Likewise, when Lin’s daughter–a college student in the US–gets into a fight with a classmate over racism against Chinese, he is proud.

As such, Factory Boss glorifies owners of small factories such as Lin as the unsung heroes of China’s economic miracle. Meanwhile, the film shows workers as pure-hearted but  egged on by greedy lawyers and tabloid journalists.

Courtesy of ShenZhen HuaHao Film & Media Co., Ltd.

The film’s cinematic style, which draws somewhat from sixth-Generation aesthetics, prevents it from becoming too heavy-handed though, providing a  carefully controlled and level perspective. Factory Boss’ scenes have excellent composition, and evoke documentary filmmaking techniques.

On top of all this, Yao Anlian’s performance as Lin makes Factory Boss especially remarkable. Yao’s nuanced portrayal transforms  Lin into more than a cutout character; he  depicts Lin as prone to temper tantrums, but ultimately guided by noble intentions. On this front, Yao’s acting is at its strongest during scenes when Lin rages at his circumstances.

Factory Boss manages to be as nuanced as it can be within the constraints of a pro-factory boss perspective. But even those who would take issue with the movie’s depiction of China’s economic growth in past decades, and read the film as whitewashing the record of factory owners, cannot deny the movie’s technical prowess. Just for this, Factory Boss is worth a watch.

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Factory Boss (Chinese: 打工老板)—China. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Zhang Wei. First released 21 October, 2014. Running time 1h 38m. Starring Yao Anlian, Tang Yan, Zhao Ju, Huang Jingyi.

This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival.

This article is also published in No Man Is An Island, an online publication focused on the connections between everyday life and politics. No Man Is An Island is brought to you by the team behind New Bloom Magazine.

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