This film offers a powerful and informative narrative of the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen in southeast China. Through the life stories of five characters, the audience is introduced to the long history of the porcelain industry in the city, the everyday life of porcelain workers under the People's Republic of China, and the significant changes this institution underwent with the onset of the market economy in the mid-1990s. As the title indicates, the film revolves around the daily challenges encountered by porcelain workers who were laid off in the 1990s and those who still work in small workshops and produce what the market demands. Through interviews, archival clips, and footage of neighborhoods and workplaces, anthropologist and filmmaker Maris Gillette tells a riveting story of an industry that has been the backbone of Jingdezhen for almost six centuries.
The film opens with Gillette inviting the audience to imagine a specific sequence of events. She asks them to imagine living in a city built around a single state-supported industry, working in porcelain factories just like their fathers and grandfathers and enjoying a secure life, only to get laid off with no resources to fall back upon. Not only does this invitation to imagine the devastating impacts of the market economy on people's lives and livelihoods capture the attention of the audience, but it also situates this story in a wider context. In 1978, China started to implement economic reforms that involved adopting some principles of the capitalist system. Beginning with the encouragement of foreign investment, economic reforms eventually entailed privatization of some state enterprises that were deemed inept and unprofitable. This shift in state policy resulted in considerable layoffs that affected, and for the most part devastated, whole families. Broken Pots Broken Dreams documents social changes in the aftermath of this historical moment. This film is about how a ruthless market economy renders people vulnerable and dispensable. As such, the film is not merely about the particular, but it tells a global story as well. It narrates a history of global capitalism and contemporary neoliberalism through focusing on the story of porcelain workers in Jingdezhen.
The main narrative in the film shifts between two characters: Gong Meihua and Feng Shangang. While Meihua provides the perspective of a porcelain worker, Shangang is the official voice of the Chinese state. Through their stories, we get a glimpse of the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen. The porcelain factories were not merely places of work. They were micro-societies that included thousands of workers, with their own schools, clinics, and activities. As the different characters emphasize, working in a state enterprise, and especially the porcelain industry, was desirable because it meant steady salaries, medical care, and social and retirement benefits, even though the pay was barely enough. After the shutdown of state-run factories in 1995–1998, workers had to either move to small workshops in order to make ends meet, or to find different temporary jobs without such employment benefits as vacation time or health insurance.
The story of Meihua and her reminiscence structure the storyline of this documentary film. The audience almost immediately develops an affinity with her. We first see her sitting on a stool, nostalgically talking about her life before she was laid off. While looking at photographs with her daughter, she tells us that she met her husband at a dance held at the factory. After getting a sense of the importance of the factory as a social institution and the impact of the massive layoff, the audience sits in suspense waiting to know what Meihua does now and how she and her husband survive. Later on, we see her in front of a small shop on a rainy day. Meihua runs a small entertainment business that consists of four mahjong tables inside and two billiard tables outside. We get a glimpse of the social impact of this shift when Meihua mentions her daughter stays home alone after school because she works from noon to 2:00 a.m. The meager meal she prepares indicates that Meihua and her husband hardly make ends meet. Indeed, one can even detect a sense of strain on the marriage because of financial pressures. While the husband urges Meihua to open the shop during the Lunar New Year, which used to be a holiday in the porcelain factories, Meihua prefers to spend the holiday with her family. The stories and concerns of other characters, such as Yang Yajun and Jiang Huaqing, complement Meihua's account. Indeed, the film could have benefited from a more developed account of these secondary characters' hardships and life stories, which are overshadowed by Meihua. However, this is a minor issue because Gillette manages to make her point through focusing mainly on Meihua.
Gillette employs different strategies to convey the story concisely and poignantly. She enriches the powerful narratives of the characters with archival footage. While the audience listens to the characters, they see old footage of workers in porcelain factories, farmers in fields, and Communist revolutionaries taking over different areas of China. These beautifully montaged juxtapositions of different historical moments enable the director to historically contextualize the comments of the characters in a succinct way. On the other hand, the scenes of people in their neighborhoods and workshops as well as images of broken pots create a powerful visual representation of people's lives in the present. The two porcelain workers in the film operate alone in their workshops while Meihua runs a small business on her own. This environment cannot be more different from that described by them earlier in the film. Competition, vulnerability, and the need to work each day of the week dictate the lives of the workers today. The images of broken pots that permeate the film mirror the broken lives of their makers.
Throughout the film, Gillette employs close-up shots of the characters. These close-ups aim to create a connection between the audience and the characters. The spectators can easily see the characters' facial expressions, anguished smiles, and worries. As such, they become memorable. The close-up shots of the pots, on the other hand, reflect beauty and sadness. The images of piled columns of white and blue pots in the deserted factories, these beautiful objects that are laid to waste, are artistically shot and presented. As such, aesthetics and documentation become intertwined in the film. All of these are set against a beautiful soundtrack and sound mix written for the film by Rodney Whittenberg. Intertwining traditional Chinese music with a contemporary beat, the music goes with the stories told.
The film offers a refreshing view of China. China here is not portrayed as the exotic Other. It is neither romanticized nor vilified. The film shows the everyday life of people struggling after losing their secure jobs. We hear voices of workers speaking about their lives, fears, and struggles at a moment when a global market economy based on privatization and dictated by profit is taking over. It thus speaks to and about people the world over who are fending for themselves in a capitalist economy that renders them as mere numbers and not the humans they are. Watching this documentary on the porcelain industry in a Chinese city, a spectator can relate to similar hardships of those bearing the brunt of neoliberal policies in other places. The film, as such, can reach a wide audience.
This film is a rich resource for courses in anthropology and Chinese studies and scholars of capitalism and globalization. It elegantly deals with the history of porcelain production in Jingdezhen, Chinese history, political economy, privatization, globalization, and everyday life under neoliberal policies. While being accessible, it can also provoke rich debates and create vivid impressions.