As the industrial might of China makes it a formidable economic player on the global stage, its wage-beholden citizens have had to adjust to an increasingly dehumanized life as cogs in that machine. But even flowers grow in sidewalk cracks, and the brutally serene documentary "Iron Moon" from Qin Xiaoyu and Wu Feiyue spotlights a handful of bottom-rung workers who write achingly clear-eyed poetry that spotlights the contours of their lives.
Through onscreen text of their mournful verse, and quietly stark glimpses into their migratory, hand-to-mouth lives, we see how their art is a coping mechanism for loss, poverty, and feelings of invisibility. Thirtysomething Dawn Wu, a longtime garment factory worker, writes a poem ("Sundress") to the "unknown girl" who will eventually wear the fancy clothes she's ironing.
Demolitions worker Lucky Chen, who struggles to maintain employment, writes to the children he never gets to see. A veteran coal miner who senses ghosts everywhere uses poetry to reconcile with the many lives lost deep under the earth, what one of his poems calls "the temple that teaches a pitch black religion."
The filmmakers save their saddest mini-portrait for last, that of the film's patron saint of sorts: Xu Lizhi, an assembly line worker at the enormous Foxconn electronics factory in Shenzhen, who jumped to his death in 2014. One of his poems ("I Swallowed an Iron Moon") gives the film its title, and its prevailing mood: "I can't swallow any more/Everything I've swallowed rolls up in my throat/I spread across my country a poem of shame."
In Mandarin with English text and subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena