American Factory (2019)

Film Review

September 2019

A Tale of Two Cultures

There is unresolvable tension at the core of this grim, often hilarious Obama-produced documentary. Fuyao Glass, a Chinese glass manufacturer, has opened a factory in small town America, at once bringing hope to a struggling community and forcing two fundamentally different cultures to meld into one. The results are—excuse the wordplay—fragile. Promises are broken, dreams are shattered. And with the rise of automation, we are offered a glimpse into a disappearing world: “Up to 375 million people globally will need to find entirely new kinds of jobs by 2030.”

The Chinese employees, who have left their families behind to train the Americans, attend classes to help ease the culture shock. “They’re even allowed to make fun of their president,” says the teacher in disbelief. We neatly transition between the Fuyao headquarters in China, a seemingly cheerful and efficient place, and the American factory, with its rumblings of a union and alarmingly high turnover.

American Factory is at its most intriguing when it focuses on individuals. The friendship between a Chinese and an American—“he’s my brother, I got his back”—carries with it much needed hope. A forklift operator letting out her anger flipping bins at the back of the factory. An American, inspired the spirit of his colleagues in China, crying “happy tears” because he’s just realised that “we are all one”. More captivating still, the enigmatic Chairman Cao suffering an existential crisis at the peak of his career, “Have I taken the peace away and destroyed the environment?” He longs for a simpler China, “I miss the croaking frogs and chirping bugs of my childhood.” We follow him to a Buddhist temple and he wanders along looking hopeless and isolated. Whether he’s putting it on for the camera or not, it’s a rare moment. Above the perpetual din of his factories, confusion trickles down from the top.