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Blue jeans diary gets the job done

In "China Blue," workers in a blue jeans factory keep their eyes open with clothespins to avoid falling asleep .

What if, when you stuck your hand into the pocket of a new pair of brand-name jeans, you pulled out a letter from one of the exploited workers who had slaved and sweated over your denim? Would you be surprised if the writer acted more curious than angry? Would you chuckle when she wondered why you need such tall, wide pants?

That's the experience of watching "China Blue," Micha X. Peled's revealing documentary about life inside a south China factory where peasants with few options come to find jobs, worldliness, and sometimes even love while working around the clock for pennies a day. Though its dissection of globalization is sobering and sharp-tongued in places, the film's approach is ultimately more diary than diatribe, centered on the kind of girls who would rather dance than despair.

Maybe that sounds like a lukewarm place for a documentary to start, but it's actually refreshing. Every injustice doesn't need to be presented as all-consuming, or the worst of its kind, or even as difficult as the life some people's parents are leading back home on their ox-tilled farm.

Peled, whose 2001 documentary, "Store Wars," tackled the impact of a new Wal-Mart in small-town America, this time travels to where the product chain originates. And what his crew finds there, apparently in between being harassed and arrested by Chinese authorities, is a poignant, all-too-common tale of casual abuse in a workplace that is candidly labeled "better than most."

"China Blue" primarily tells the story of our teenage diary writer, Jasmine, the undervalued second daughter of a Sichuan farm family, who arrives at the gates of the Lifeng Factory in Shaxi (near Canton) and signs on as a thread-cutter. She doesn't worry that she'll average just four hours of sleep a day in her cramped dorm room. She accepts being constantly monitored by cameras and time clocks, and knows it's inevitable that her meager monthly wages (when they're paid at all) will be garnished for infractions such as talking, laughing, and sneaking out. When she really wants to escape, she'll write stories about her superhero alter ego.

The factory is owned by a former chief of police who is proud of ruling with an iron fist. His business pressures and comparatively low margins could have been glossed over to make a less complicated villain; instead, he's allowed to have sympathetic moments, even though he says outrageous things ("the world can't live without denim," for example) until you want to smack him with a wet pair of bell-bottoms.

When Jasmine lacks the funds to return to her farm for New Year's celebrations, Peled's camera goes home with Orchid, a bubbly zipper-installer who is eager to introduce her family to her factory-worker boyfriend. It's rich footage; the only problem is that it will leave you wanting more of what was shot outside the Lifeng compound's walls, where debates such as "capitalism or communism?" are in some ways just getting started.

"China Blue" elects to stay focused on the genesis of your jeans. And while its relaxed-fit end product is nothing sexy, it gets the job done.

Janice Page can be reached at For more on movies, go to