“Gentlemen, the lunchbox has landed.” Not all our readers will immediately fathom the true meaning of this remark.
It comes from one of the best-known films about redundant steelworkers, the 1997 comedy The Full Monty, in which six unemployed Yorkshiremen form a male striptease act. Against a backdrop of urban and industrial decay, the men are desperate enough to strip off completely (the “full monty” in question) in search of cash to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Zhang Meng’s latest film, The Piano in a Factory, also tells the tale of an ex-steel factory worker.
It is set in early 1990s in Anshan, Liaoning province and reflects on the life of former worker Chen Guilin (played by Wang Qianyuan) whose life is turned upside down when his estranged wife demands custody of their daughter.
Forced to choose between her two parents, the little girl gives a practical answer: she’ll live with the parent that gives her a piano.
This isn’t a problem for the returning wife, who has plenty of cash after shacking up with a wealthy new partner in a distant town.
But Chen doesn’t have the funds to make the purchase. First he tries to borrow money from friends and relatives. When that fails he attempts to steal a piano. And when this plan also comes to nothing, Chen starts to build his own piano, enlisting the help of his loyal girlfriend (Qin Hailu) and a group of his friends.
They scour the remnants of defunct factories for material, salvaging parts from the now-shuttered steel plant.
Alongside Chen’s quest to keep his daughter, Piano tracks the wider impact of a fast-liberalising economy that disrupted Chinese society less than a generation ago. Critics say the film’s portrayal of Chen’s struggles touches on an era that is already being forgotten.
In the early 1990s, exasperated by continuing inefficiency in the country’s state-owned enterprises, Party leaders slashed back on the subsidies and financial support that had sustained the so-called ‘iron rice bowl’ existence of millions of workers in state jobs.
Unemployment grew quickly, with thousands of enterprises unable to survive the new, free market pressures. China’s northeastern provinces were hit the hardest, as home to some of the most outmoded, communist-era work practices and state firms.
Many of those laid off had little access to unemployment benefit or continuing healthcare. In Liaoning province, where the film is set, the newly unemployed were entitled to a meagre allowance for an initial period. After that, they were on their own.
To make ends meet, many resorted to petty crime, prostitution and menial labour. In Shenyang, a husband was fired from a factory but couldn’t find a job. To support the family the wife decided to go into prostitution. So every day around sunset, the husband would carry his wife on the back of his bicycle to take her to work. And he would wait outside until midnight to drive his wife home, says FT China in an editorial.
In another case, a man became unhinged under the strain of supporting his wife and son. He jumped to his death after his wife called him “useless and incompetent” because the family couldn’t afford a pair of trainers for the son.
Zhang himself was born and raised in an industrial city in China’s northeast. But he has toned down some of the bleaker tones in the film, to give it more of an arthouse quality.
“For all the dreariness of the faded factory town, a tone of gentle whimsy embraces all situations and characters,” says the Hollywood Reporter.
Zhang’s movie – which was released to cinemas in China this month – has already met with critical acclaim, having shown at 40 international film festivals.
At the Shanghai Film Festival it swept the board, winning awards for best director, best actor, best actress and best screenplay.
Zhang said his goal was to portray the lives and mindsets of those living at the bottom of the income pyramid in a decaying industrial community.
“I simply want to bring people back to that era and tell them what people’s life was like. China has a collective memory, and this time in history is worth our attention,” says Zhang. “I hope everyone will realise that this class of people once had a glorious age.” Netizens agree. One wrote on Sina Weibo: “The Piano in a Factory doesn’t only tell the story of fatherly love, but it is also a snapshot of a region (the heavy industrial base of the northeast), an era (a period where millions of workers were laid off), and a class (the lower working class). As we hurtle toward the future, we are also forgetting about such an important period of our history.”
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