It is difficult, but necessary, to watch China Blue. For those who take shopping for consumer goods for granted (particularly in discount super-chains), this behind-the-scenes look at how one popular item is produced will leave you chilled. Or, as the tagline for the film's promotion puts it, "Shopping Will Never Be the Same!"
Producer-director Micha X. Peled (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town) levels a devastating critique of the inequities in globalization simply by following the story of a Chinese girl who works for a jeans sweatshop in China. The girl's harsh, even cruel, experiences should force changes in an unfair system.
Shot clandestinely, without the approval of Chinese authorities, Peled's documentary begins with a Western superstore client demanding that Shaxi factory owner Guo Xi Lam "step up" production to deliver their blue jeans by a pending deadline. Sadly, the factory owner puts extra pressure on his workers, mostly young, pre-teen girls, who are used to being exploited and paid slave wages but who need the money to help support their families.
As the deadline looms, Jasmine, a thread-cutter, finds herself feeling ill but ignoring her health problems in order to hold on to her job. Jasmine barely eats and tries desperately to stay awake during the long work hours. At one point, however, she resorts to pretending to stay awake by keeping her eyes open while actually sleeping, a trick she learns from a friend. During the harried attempt by the assembly line to finish its work, we hear that the girls are often left unpaid for their labor and must unite in protest in order to get their wages.
Finally, Jasmine and her friends meet the deadline for their boss and briefly celebrate their success. But Jasmine's future on the job (and personal health) remains uncertain at best, as a new girl is given an orientation and the factory moves on to the next big order.
If China Blue had been a fiction film, it would be considered a great tragedy. But the fact that this is a living document of current-day work conditions in the "Third World" makes it a call to arms: No one should have to live the way the poor girls do who are depicted by Peled. One can only hope that China Blue will make a difference by raising awareness.
Peled's last film, Store Wars, also focused on the greed and excesses of multinational corporations, but China Blue makes an even greater impact by putting a human face on the problem. Jasmine becomes a heartbreaking heroine by revealing sang-froid in the face of her horrific working environment. It is highly disturbing, however, to learn that Jasmine has "disappeared" since the completion of the filming.
The only major flaw of China Blue is that some important drama remains off-screen, as the filmmakers had to film secretly and hide their intentions from the factory owner. Also, their footage was confiscated at one point and the authorities were constantly a threat to the production. Peled should have found a way to integrate more of this extra-textual story into the film. One minor problem is the title: China Blue refers to the factory product (the blue jeans) and perhaps the mood of the workers, but it also sounds vague and benign to anyone unaware of the film's content.
In any case, Peled's film is a must-see--if not by the average consumer, then by politicians and U.N. officials.