screened Tuesday July 3 2007 at the Film Forum, NYC IMDb
A film of often hypnotic power and unsettling visual beauty, this high-art documentary accompanies photographer Edward Burtynsky on a tour of industrial China. Nothing in the film quite matches the opening, a breathtaking minutes-long tracking shot across an entire cross-section of a Chinese factory floor lined with hundreds of workers. Intentionally or not, the shot can’t help but announce itself as a contemporary update on traditional Chinese scroll painting, surveying the work of so many alienated laborers with a eerily commanding sense of panoptic authority. It’s not entirely satisfying that the film largely prefers to keep its distance from those people, insisting on portraying them as the helpless (and mostly faceless) pawns of capitalism. For the most part, this detached observer schtick is watchable even while hiding, like its subject, behind an “I’m just a messenger” alibi of impartiality. Nevertheless Baichwal and ace cameraman Peter Mettler can’t help but lay in some editorializing, cutting from Burtynsky’s fussy request to move an entire column of workers during an outdoor assembly to enhance his composition to the distressed discussion among one of those columns about their lackluster performance review. In making this contrast the filmmakers also expose the limitations of their own sweeping macro-level scope as they hop from one wasteland site to another.