At first blush, Zhang Wei hardly seems like the kind of guy who cares about the social justice issues of the factory floor.
Five Harley-Davidson choppers gleam in the sun in the driveway of his mansion in Beijing's exclusive Silver Lake Villas neighborhood. (He says he first fell in love with the bikes on Sunset Boulevard.) Inside, the Chinese entrepreneur is showing off his extensive collection of whiskeys from around the world.
"Do you want to try some Macallan, 17-year?" says Zhang, 49, pulling out a personalized bottle from one of the dozens of cabinets stretching from floor to ceiling along a long corridor. "Look, it's got my name on the label!"
Zhang moves to the dining room, surveying a Lazy Susan table laden with lunch dishes his staff has prepared. "All organic — from my garden outside," he says, pointing at some vegetables. When a visitor jokingly asks whether the pork is homegrown too, Zhang leaps up and throws open the patio door. "Piggy!" he calls. A black pig comes oinking up the back steps, disturbing a pen of ducks and chickens nearby.
A onetime migrant worker from Hunan province who amassed millions making video intercom doorbell systems in the southern city of Shenzhen, Zhang clearly enjoys the trappings of his wealth. But, it turns out, he's also the creative force behind an unusual new film about Chinese sweatshops.
Although the exploitation of Chinese assembly line workers has been making headlines for years, it's a sensitive subject that's rarely been touched on by China's filmmakers. Zhang has changed that by directing and producing "Factory Boss," a drama that sometimes feels more like a documentary.
It would be easy, of course, to make a moralizing movie about the toiling masses and their greedy capitalist overlords. Zhang's film takes a risky but ultimately effective tack: humanizing the boss.
"I wanted to include different characters, different groups — the workers, society, the media, but most of all, the boss," Zhang says from behind a massive desk in his home office where he now pursues his second career: movies.
Bounding up to a bookshelf stacked with news clippings, Zhang pulls out a file of articles about conditions at Foxconn factories in China that produce iPhones, and a spate of suicides among employees there — research for the film.
"I thought, if workers are killing themselves, bosses one day will too," says Zhang, who first conceived of the movie in 2006, the year he sold his company and started studying filmmaking. "They're facing intense problems and pressures."
"Factory Boss" was shot in Zhang's old Shenzhen stomping grounds, and he leveraged his connections there, asking factory owner friends for filming locations and even recruiting their employees as extras.
The plot revolves around the owner of a toy company in Shenzhen (played convincingly by Yao Anlian) who struggles to hold his business and himself together as he comes under intense pressure from local competitors, his foreign client, his workers, the media, officials and even his family.
Starved for orders after the global economic crisis, the boss is in fierce competition with other Chinese factory owners to land a contract for Barbie-type figures from a U.S. company. Though the profit margin is razor-thin, he takes the deal, hoping to put his employees back to work and move a step closer to his dream of creating his own line of dolls.
Soon, though, an idealistic young reporter goes undercover in the company, penning an expose on conditions in the factory that prompts an investigation and delays production. As the boss pushes employees to make up for lost time and meet deadline, the situation only gets worse, and he becomes both victim and victimizer. A strike, a court case and bankruptcy follow. Ultimately, no one comes out unscathed.
"The boss is a victim, just as the people who work for him are victims," says Serge Losique, president of the Montreal World Film Festival, where the film recently premiered. "The script is good and it's a very, very modern film. Everyone is talking about cheap labor in China these days and how that affects the entire world."
Zhang claims that the film is not autobiographical. "The only thing we have in common is we're both bosses," he says of the lead character. But like the movie's protagonist, he seems to live a rather solitary bachelor lifestyle and has an adult child overseas he mentions only in passing. "I rarely leave the house," he says.
A rough-hewn man with a gravelly voice that goes a mile a minute, Zhang has plenty to keep him occupied at home. He typically reads in the morning and works on scripts in the afternoon. Dressed casually in a red T-shirt and camouflage shorts embroidered with a sombrero-wearing skull, he pads around his library, showing off thousands of DVDs and books.
French writer Honore de Balzac and directors Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone are inspirations, Zhang says. "I love 'Nixon.' And 'JFK.' Oliver Stone — he dares to criticize! Of course this doesn't affect him, but we must be careful."
"Factory Boss" was narrowly approved by Chinese censors, but whether it can find an audience at home remains to be seen. In China's booming but still-developing movie market, there is little room for a socially conscious film by an unknown director.
"A lot of cinemas do not want to show these films because they think the audience won't come," Zhang says.
Shenzhen's government has agreed to help promote the film, but so far there are plans for only limited showings in Guangdong province.
"In Shenzhen, I'm somebody; I can get stuff done," Zhang says. "In Beijing, I'm a nobody."
Zhang is among a new cohort of Chinese directors who are trying their hand at filmmaking in middle age after successful careers in other industries. Eager to make some extra income off students who often have more money than talent, numerous film schools now offer "boss classes" for these Johnny-come-latelys.
"There are many of these 'boss' types getting into movies these days. Some want to make money with films, and others want to get themselves or their businesses featured in movies," says Li Xun, a researcher at the China Film Archive, a research and preservation center for film.
"But Zhang is a different breed: He's got a real passion for film and his ideals. His works are art films. If you put them in the Chinese market, they're not going to make much money."
Zhang took lessons at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy for several years after selling his business. "Factory Boss" is his third movie as a director and carries on a concern for social issues seen in his first two works.
"Beijing Dream" (2010) centered on a Nigerian student who despite speaking Mandarin struggles to find his place in China's capital after graduating from college. "Shadow Monologue" (2011) told the story of a practitioner of traditional puppetry trying to keep the art form alive.
"My films have many characters who seem trivial, but I try to reflect the humanity in everyone," says Zhang. A fifth-generation Christian who keeps a cross on his mantel and whose main staircase is decorated with religious-themed art, including a crucifixion scene, he says his faith has a significant influence on his moviemaking.
Lutz Reitemeier, a German cinematographer who shot "Factory Boss," says Zhang "is interested in the changes in Chinese society — the tension between the past and modernity and the provincial life and urbanization — and what it means for people."
Zhang says he was able to sell "Beijing Dream" and "Shadow Monologue" to the state-run movie channel for modest sums, but on the whole his self-bankrolled movie career has been a money-losing affair. He seems less concerned with achieving commercial success or recognition, though, than moving on to his next projects.
He has plans for one film about an autistic youth and another about a group of Tibetan blind singers. Another idea revolves around a man who feels that maybe he should have been born a woman.
"I want to do stories that others won't do," Zhang says. "Once I'm done with a film, I want to move on to the next one. I've started working on films only in middle age and I want to make as many as I can."