American Factory ★★★
A Tale of Two Cultures
Available at home: Netflix
In 2008, the General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio closed, leaving 2400 employees jobless. Six years later, the Fuyao Group, a Chinese manufacturer of glass for automobiles, moved into the GM facility, bringing with it hundreds of Chinese workers while also hiring 2,000 Americans.
A story of the clash of cultures, values, attitudes and emotions.
“American Factory,” winner for Netflix of the 2019 Oscar for Best Documentary, is the story—at its best—of the resulting clash of cultures, values, attitudes and emotions. The Chinese—both the workers and Chinese supervisors—are depicted as hard- and fast-working, uncomplaining, respectful of managerial authority, grateful for a wage structure that allows them to become middle-class consumers, deeply committed to a “team” approach to the workplace and to the company’s goals and methods and, as we see in a segment on the company’s China plant, willing to tolerate and endure regimentation, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Sent to the US for 2 years as part of their jobs, these mostly men and a few women “live to work.”
The Chinese view the Americans as lazy and slow.
The Americans, while grateful that the company has come to Dayton and hoping for the best, are resentful of low wages (half of what they earned at the GM plant) that have reduced their standard of living, justifiably concerned about plant safety and industrial injuries, anti-authoritarian and individualistic, and eager to communicate their grievances through a union. They also are viewed by the Chinese as lazy and slow (as one Chinese supervisor says, their fat fingers prevent them from handling the glass adroitly). While Chinese workers will do as they’re told, without knowing why, their American counterparts want to participate in the decisions that shape their work lives, and to understand the “why.”
The film’s most entertaining sequence features a half-dozen American supervisors visiting China.
Some of these differences—and others—are brought home in the film’s most entertaining sequence, featuring a half-dozen American supervisors visiting China to observe how things are done in the factory there. They’ve been invited to China by the billionaire founder and owner of the company, Cho Tak Wong, referred to only as “The Chairman,” who was interviewed extensively and effectively for the film. The visiting Americans are all men and several are so overweight that they have trouble fitting into safety vests. In sharp contrast to their hosts, who wear sport coats, they’re casually dressed, going about the Chinese board rooms and factories in sport shirts and T-shirts. Whatever their appearance, they’re impressed and stunned by the Chinese work ethic (12 hours a day, 6 days a week). They’re also overwhelmed, it’s fair to say, by a dazzling song and dance spectacle (ending with the Americans onstage performing “Y.M.C.A.”) hardly less elaborate than half-time at the Super Bowl, designed to showcase the company’s litany of slogans and bromides that includes song lyrics referencing “transparency” (remember, it’s a glass factory).
Other aspects of the film are less successful. Although the union issue is prominent, there’s no effort to present a sophisticated understanding of the merits and demerits of unionizing. In general, the American workers want a union and the Chinese workers don’t, but the perspective of the Chinese workers is only minimally developed, with one worker talking metaphorically about how one can’t have two riders on one horse. The company’s position is more adequately articulated (though again, hardly sophisticated), through its propagandistic presentations—secretly recorded—of a team of “union avoidance consultants.” But what appear to be clear violations of US Labor Law in the firing of union activists go without comment, part of what makes the union segment of the film uneven and perplexing.
A Harley-driving, middle-aged white man who raises horses invites a group of the Chinese workers to his place for barbecue and target practice.
Perhaps most disappointing is that there’s little attention to individual Chinese workers; the film focuses on only one, Wong He, a furnace supervisor with a wife and 2 kids in China, who lives in a spare apartment with several of his colleagues and, though committed to the company (his lunch break consists of quickly downing 2 Twinkies), experiences emotional turmoil. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert profile several male and female, black and white American workers, showing some in their homes. One of those is He’s counterpart Rob Haer, a Harley-driving, middle-aged white man who raises horses and invites a group of the Chinese workers to his place for barbecue and target practice. Although Haer works with and deeply admires He and considers him like a son, Haer is eventually fired—for taking 3 minutes to access a computer program.
"American Factory" is seductively filmed.
“American Factory” is seductively filmed—from gorgeous opening shots of the industrial detritus that was the factory to final scenes of newly installed massive robots doing their work as Chinese managers stroll about explaining which workers will be replaced next. But the film (backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company) is not about robots, and not even about draconian Chinese management. This heavy didacticism vitiates what is otherwise a powerful story of Chinese and American workers, trying their best to negotiate a difficult moment, and to figure out what the other is all about.
Directors: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Starring: Wong He, Rob Haer, Cho Tak Wong, and the many Chinese and American workers and managers at Fuyao Glass America.
Runtime: 110 minutes
Oscar: 2019 Best Documentary Feature