Review: ‘Complicit’

Doc puts a human face on China’s migrant workers who suffer while consumers enjoy cheap goods

6 mins read

(China/Hong Kong/USA/Netherlands, 88 min.)
Dir. Heather White and Lynn Zhang


Talking during movies is inappropriate, but the trend nowadays is to avoid impoliteness by refraining from comment during a screening and tweeting about the film afterwards. Sending a 140-character note on Complicit might actually be the best way to start a conversation about the film. As one gazes into the screen and taps one’s thumbs on the keyboard icons, one grasps one’s involvement and complicity in a major human rights issue. Even reviewing the film, staring at a screen on a laptop, feels uncomfortably inappropriate and ironic after viewing this compelling documentary.

Complicit puts a human face on the stories of China’s migrant workers who toil away to make the modern conveniences many of us enjoy at a low cost. These workers leave home to scrape by in the burgeoning manufacturing industry and send their meagre paycheques back to their families. The cost of this support is significant since the factory work often puts employees at risk for occupational diseases and major health problems. These workers can rarely afford treatment for health problems contracted through exposure on the factory floors, so whatever small fortunes they accrue go towards medical bills to pay the cost of care.

Central to Complicit is Yi YeTing, a migrant worker who suffers from occupational leukemia. He explains via interviews how he developed cancer though prolonged exposure to carcinogens by working with chemicals like benzene and n-hexane. Interviews and verité-style footage with Yi show the risks that workers take while applying solvents to electronics, dabbling and spraying chemicals on mobile screens, and absorbing carcinogens in the process. Yi’s effort to receive compensation for treatment—and to receive care early enough to save his life—leads the film into the frustrating legal battles, messes of red tape, and strokes of bureaucratic indifference that make the situation extra dire. The film takes audiences back to the rural villages and hometowns of the workers to give a sense of the greater cultural costs to family, tradition, identity, and heritage that accumulate when the younger generations leave for the city.

Complicit features several stories of lives cut short, like that of Xiao Ya, who explains how she left her parents to earn her keep in a factory and was overwhelmed by seemingly high paydays until the wobbling in her body turned out to be paralysis. Then there’s the especially tragic story of 26-year-old Ming Kunpeng, who contracted leukemia at an early age and killed himself to save his family the shame and financial burden. The losses and debts see his family embroiled in an especially emotional fight to expose the conditions of the factories.

The reason migrant workers struggle to pay for care, moreover, often falls on the consumer. This point isn’t one that directors Heather White and Lynn Zhang even need to make in Complicit as they point their fingers at the senior-level managers, corporate executives, and politicians who avert their eyes from the consequences of cheap manufacturing. All the inexpensive goods and sublime electronics consumers crave have to remedy the bottom lines of their producers somewhere, and wages for workers at the lower rung often pay the price.

Ironically, the same gadgets that rob the workers of their lives ultimately empower them. Mobile cameras afford covert infiltrations of manufacturing plants where Samsung and Apple products create a discard pile of workers. Weibo, China’s equivalent to the micro-blogging site Twitter, lets afflicted workers expose the harsh realities of the workplace and rally the troops to protest. While the hidden cameras fail to reveal eye-opening images of harsh working conditions, the banality of the scenes, and the obvious efforts on the management to contain and control workers’ knowledge of the environment, illustrate how factory employees must work repetitive tasks in ignorance of the side effects. Protests outside the factory walls, on the other hand, show how the factories and the state work hand in hand to keep the workers at bay.

Complicit intuitively conveys the complicated trap in which these workers find themselves as the workers fight to save lives by employing the very tools that take their own. Similarly, the film shows that the first step towards lies with the consumer: demand companies create their products in safe workplaces and boycott the goods of those who do not. When today’s mobile-friendly consumer culture conditions us to make instinctive decisions by swiping left or right, it shouldn’t be so difficult to do the right thing.

Complicit screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Thursday, March 30 at 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Director/producer Heather White joins for a Skype Q&A.



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

Previous Story

Review: ‘Tickling Giants’

Next Story

Review: ‘Obit’

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00