Friday, January 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Your ticket to this documentary costs more than they earn in a day

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"China Blue," a documentary directed by Micha X. Peled. In Cantonese, Mandarin, Sichuan and English with English subtitles. 88 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Grand Illusion.

There is a startling message at the end of "China Blue" that should give anyone pause before he/she buys a new pair of jeans: "In the time it has taken to view this film, Jasmine and 15 co-workers made 50 pairs of jeans and earned $1.45."

They didn't make $1.45 each. At a starting wage of 6 cents per hour, this overworked and dangerously exploited group of Chinese factory workers collectively earned less than the U.S. cost of a double-tall latte. Their labor accounts for 2 or 3 percent of the cost of the jeans. International retailers jack up the price and reap outrageous profits, and the sweatshop workers can't afford to visit their families for the New Year's holiday. Sometimes they work 20-hour shifts, clamping their eyelids open with plastic clips, lest they get penalized for appearing to sleep on the job.

In Micha X. Peled's heartbreaking yet boldly essential documentary, 15-year-old Jasmine is one of countless workers who represent the greatest migration in China's history. With naive optimism, they reluctantly leave their rural villages, seeking employment in clothing factories that turn opportunity into a waking nightmare. They only want to support their families; they end up barely able to support themselves. It can be months before they receive their first paycheck, full of deductions for dormitory room-and-board and on-the-job penalties.

Shot clandestinely with equipment smuggled into mainland China from Hong Kong, Peled's film is surprisingly engaging considering the subject matter. Despite numerous efforts by Chinese authorities to shut down the filming, Peled (whose earlier film, "Store Wars," tackled Wal-Mart's impact on small-town businesses) blows the lid off an escalating crisis of our global economy. Jasmine and her co-workers are Dickensian heroines, appealing in their youth and vitality, yet painfully aware of their oppressive circumstances. We care for them as we care for Oliver Twist ... only Oliver had it better.

That's why moral outrage is the only civilized response to what "China Blue" reveals: well-meaning factory owners who "educate the workers through slogans," claiming that such measures result in happy, motivated workers, and international retailers who place high-volume orders with tight deadlines, pressuring factory owners to cut employee wages to maximize the buyer's profits.

It's not all misery, or the film would be unbearable. Jasmine is sweet-natured and sensible as she writes in her diary and buys "energy medicine" to boost her productivity, and "China Blue" presents a fairly balanced and richly human story while exposing the blatant labor-law violations of multinational corporations.

We may think we're not complicit in this crime, but we are. You think those jeans you bought were expensive? Consider the price paid by the girl who stitched on the pockets. She wonders if you care.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company


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