Early in the documentary "Mardi Gras: Made in China" a reveler in New Orleans is asked if he knows where the beads around his neck come from. "Don't know, don't care!" he shouts over the din. "They're beads for boobs, man!"
And therein lies the problem facing filmmaker David Redmon. The particulars of the 14- to 16-hour days in the Chinese Mardi Gras paraphernalia factories are distasteful but sadly unsurprising (one woman figures she makes 1 cent per 12 necklaces; monthly pay tops out around $62). They're the kind of ugly ingredients that most people shrug at and swallow as part of the capitalist gumbo. So how to hold the interest of viewers, who might not cotton to hearing about how the andouille sausage they're eating was made, so to speak?
Fortunately Redmon is smart enough to come at the problem sideways. He pointedly does not offer solutions or even condemnations but simply humanizes workers, partyers and even the intelligent, candid factory owner. "Mardi Gras" cleverly juxtaposes the apex of American bacchanalian excess with the politely sweatshop-like conditions that facilitate the fun, but rather than prissily lecturing the audience, the filmmaker mostly lets the people and images speak for themselves. There is arresting footage of one woman working at incredible, machine-like speed, shown virtually without comment. And there's plenty of whooping, vomiting partying on Bourbon Street, including enough nudity to illustrate exactly what some women do for those shiny pieces of plastic -- factory owner Roger gushes in recollection, "My God, they love my beads!"
Redmon also has a talent for getting great sound bites out of his interview subjects. Roger matter-of-factly explains that he wouldn't allow men to constitute more than 10% of his workforce because "we still believe it is more easier for us to control the lady workers." After the owner of an American company that is Roger's primary customer waxes rhapsodic about how the factory needs barbed wire to keep people out and that the workers labor in silence to maximize their earning power, Redmon confides that the penalty for talking on the factory floor is a day's pay.
But it's the filmmaker's eye for irony that makes this dish so spicy. He lets Roger declare, with more than a hint of moral superiority, that male and female workers are not allowed to fraternize, and if one is caught in the barracks of the opposite sex, the penalty is a month's pay. Then we see the highly sexualized, even obscene, tokens made at some of these factories. Elsewhere, Redmon says the practice of exchanging beads for female nudity at Mardi Gras began in 1978, as did Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in China.
Although for some it may ruin the romanticism of drunken women exposing themselves to drooling strangers with cameras for cheap plastic beads, "Mardi Gras: Made in China" is a thought-provoking, canny piece of filmmaking that puts flesh, blood and garish multicolored baubles on the skeleton of globalization.
`Mardi Gras: Made in China'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Director-cinematographer-editor Dave Redmon. Producers Redmon, Deborah and Dale Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., at Fairfax Avenue, (323) 655-4010.