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Doc Corner: 'The China Hustle'

By Glenn Dunks

There is immediately something to be admired in a film that begins with a talking head stating very matter-of-factly that “There are no good guys in this story, including me.” I mean, well damn, okay. The China Hustle is a film that begins and ends in a pit of greed and contempt, charting how the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of the Chinese economy played rather conveniently into one another and how a brand new variety of stock fraud is being committed on the American people.

Directed by Jeff Rothstein who was Oscar nominated in 2010 for his documentary short Killing in the Name, The China Hustle exposes the growing problem on the American stock exchange of Chinese companies over-inflated their worth and effectively dropping a timebomb on the market with the help of shell companies and China’s lax company laws aided by pure old fashioned greed as auditors and lawyers blatantly misrepresent and mislead the public for their own profits.

The China Hustle shares more than just a little narrative DNA with the sublime Inside Job, one of the best winners of the documentary Oscar, Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Adam McKay’s The Big Short and this year’s nominee Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. All of these titles have shone a light on the inglorious failures of the finance sector and more specifically highlighted the many ways that the system is working against the people’s better interests. Hustle is not as good as those films (well, the documentaries at least – I’m no fan of The Big Short), but that’s not necessarily the damning critique that it may read as. It lacks the budget of Inside Job and the dramatic specificity of Enron and Abacus, yet it has its own unique successes although there are moments of cinematic power as when Rothstein and his editors Keith Reamer and Brian Goetz juxtapose images of tourists taking selfies and family portraits with the Charging Bull while over the soundtrack we hear of the litany of ways Wall Street has played against the working class.

Gibney, whose films are an obvious inspiration for Rothstein, is an executive producer on the film. And not for nothing, Gibney’s films often have a deft way about them in how they can condense any number of labyrinthine political, social and technological matters and make them not only make sense to a lay person like myself, but to also actually make them fun in some weird way. The idea of a documentary about short stocks and Chinese inflation does indeed sound about as dry as can possibly be, yet Rothstein is smart in selection his subjects and they all offer the film a zip. Additionally, the way this story unfolds, unexpectedly veering into spy territory and with one talking head’s dramatic exit, only makes the film more entertaining and not entirely cut from a blueprint that’s been used over and over again.

The China Hustle is lucky to catch its current events storyline at a sort of golden moment, allowing the film to feel both informative to a news story that has been unfolding and also act as a warning of things to come. Its final passages are dedicated to Alibaba, a Chinese internet company and giant in the e-commerce and entertainment fields. While Hustle doesn’t outright say that they are lying like so many others have been proven to be doing, it does suggest that Alibaba – and by association, many similar companies – are not on the level. I admit I had not heard of them and somewhat wished the film had fleshed out exactly who they were and why they believe they can get away with fleshed out asset claims, but it’s a parting gift of sorts to the inquisitive who are eager to carry on following the story while also allowing viewers a natural, of worrying conclusion for a film that very easily could have ended mid-stream with a whimper (something documentaries have an increasingly tendency to succumb to with 24/7 evolving news cycles).

If Rothstein is correct and the floor is truly about to give way and tank the stock markets in a revisit to the financial collapse of 2008, then his movie will prove to be a timely part one of the story.

Release: In limited release as well as OnDemand, YouTube, iTunes and Amazon Video from March 30.

Oscar Chances: If it sparks conversation then it could figure into the conversation, but it otherwise might get swamped by bigger films and bigger names (which certainly helped Steve James' Abacus, which was also smaller and more intimate, but got through to nominations).

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Reader Comments (5)

Sounds dry but those are the good ones!

I saw two documentaries yesterday: Step and Check It. Have you seen them? They're great in terms of black/gay representation.

February 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@peggy sue, STEP has proven difficult to see because it comes from a major studio (which makes screeners hard to obtain and its local release was minuscule and I missed it).

February 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

There are so many problematic things about this documentary I don't even know where to begin.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

The filmmaker's name is JED Rothstein...

I was fortunate to catch a screening of this, and found it thorough and compelling. It was a subject I had no interest in, but found myself pursuing once I got home from the theater. Fascinating and well done. See it, if you can!

March 15, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterwestberries

Interesting doc. Led me to look into Muddy Waters Research, which has an interesting report on CIFS. Worth reading if you want more info after watching the doc.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMrt

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