By Travis Merchant.
A decade has passed since the beginning of an economic recession that many still feel today. The recession of 2008 brought about a collapsed American market that desperately searched for a shining light to capitalize on to regain its losses. Consequently, it found China: a topic that Jed Rothstein explores, dissects, and comments on in his documentary The China Hustle. The film seeks to discover what effects the Chinese market had on the American stock market and Americans. In his search, he highlights the stories of hedge fund researchers that first jumped on Chinese companies to reveal exorbitant returns in the American stock market, only to later short those stocks and blow the whistle on those fraudulent companies. There is the story of Dan David, the co-founder of GEOInvesting, who began his research in 2009 when he noticed these companies pushing returns that did not fit with the climate of the time. There is also the story of Matt Wiechert, who first worked for Roth Bank parading these companies, but later revealed – with the help of his compatriot, Soren Aandahl – their false pretenses. Then, the film continues to unfurl the stories of so many others involved with and directly affected by the fraud that some of these Chinese companies committed in order to amass a large sum of money during the recession. The film explores these accounts with occasional inconsistency in delivery, but it ultimately glides through its runtime through quick editing, a wildly gripping narrative, and a musical score that accompanies the images with various tempos and intensities. The overall effect drills into the viewer and begs a simple question that the film opens up with: “What is capitalism?” In attempting to answer this question, the film can be daunting and terrifying, while trying to remain hopeful that something like this can be prevented.
At first, The China Hustle plays like a simple, run of the mill documentary: talking heads on a screen that exposit their part in a larger story. However, the film settles in on an uneasy tone when Dan David, the first person to speak in the entire film, says “There are no good guys in this story, including me.” From here, editors Brian Goetz and Keith Reamer deliver a feverish blend of players in Rothstein’s film, which effectively mixes both the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” This makes it unclear who the viewer can trust in this story. This plays to an admirable benefit and win for the film because the information surrounding the fraudulent companies is complicated and unclear. As a viewer watches the players appear, it may be difficult to pick out who one should believe and who one should doubt. This mix of storytelling becomes gripping as it unfurls from the talking heads at the beginning of the film to Dan David entering the playing field of Congress and attending hearings about the implications of Chinese companies in the American stock market by the third act of the film. The rush of imagery bombards the viewer with digestible information until Rothstein brings in David’s attempt to change legislation or take some action against the billions of dollars that are being lost by Americans in these dangerous stocks. When the ending finally comes around, a viewer is left with many questions: is there an ending? Should there be one for this film? It seems like it’s purposely leading into the current time to make people wary about the financial situations, especially when Rothstein brings in clips and voice-overs of the controversial current President of the United States. It is almost as if Rothstein is asking a question: is the house of cards going to fall? The film seems to suggest this is possible, even having a literal house of cards fall in the title sequence. Without giving a definitive answer, it seems to gear the audience towards a looming disaster that could appear at any second – one that is as looming as the buildings of Wall Street appearing in The China Hustle.
The filmmaking techniques, from the looks to the sounds, of The China Hustle lend a hand towards the frantic pace and delivery of the film. The buildings of Wall Street tower over this film, and Rothstein usually frames them in dark, unsaturated azure tones from low-angles. This gives the power of Wall Street a threatening presence over the film and its players. In fact, the b-roll shots evoke senses of dread, despair, and fear of what is lurking around the corner in the stock market. Not only that, but the many interviews – which range from lawyers, investors, investigators, journalist, and even everyday citizens – are juxtaposed in a way that create cohension, even if they originate from different sources and from different sides. Additionally, the way they are placed side-by-side induces a sense of moral dismay in a viewer. That emotion carries itself throughout the film, and it is also portrayed through the sounds of the film. From the swelling music, by Saul Simon MacWilliams, that seems to constantly build towards a crescendo, to the eerie sound design that utilizes sirens, a viewer could easily tremble in their seat as more information piles up. The horrifying truth of how the economy is being hijacked continues to mount, and by the end of the film, it’s not clear whether it will topple or not. While that uneasiness is a benefit, it also comes along with some inconsistency in the filmmaking that can be both inviting and slightly detrimental.
The most commendable part of the film is that it strays away from having too much polish and jargon. Coincidentally, it seems to evoke a sense of charm to a viewer. Rothstein seems to want everyone to participate in conversation about this film, and it largely succeeds because the interviews are cut down, explained, and not dense. This goes along with the filmmaking: it lacks a certain polish that some films may have that alienate viewers, though the style remains uneven. Throughout the film are some very clean dolly-movements with the camera, but then dolly-shots are occaionally shaky and not executed well. Additionally, when the film introduces Matt Wiechert, the camera is at an extreme close-up, and the information he declares gives the scene a sense of urgency and claustrophobia. However, this technique is only used sparingly. It comes across as odd because the film easily could have utilized that technique more to evoke that same uneasiness that the information and pacing of the film already gives. At the same time, perhaps this was done on purpose: to appear approachable because he, like many others, can make mistakes and is also not a “good guy,” as David states in the beginning of the film. Rothstein can make himself appear just as vulnerable as those he highlights in his film, especially when its questions either remain unanswered or answered with a brutal, dark truth.
So, when the film comes back to the question “what is capitalism” in its closing moments, Rothstein seems to suggest that everyone is just as prone to falling into a fraud or mistake as people were in 2008. While the film provides answers to that question, it seems to remain cautionary towards what could be coming just down the road. Rothstein’s film delivers its message with urgent poignancy through the quick pacing and swelling music, looming shots of the towers of Wall Street, and the frantic storytelling of all of its participants through the editing. His film screams to be heard in the second year of a controversial presidency, cautioning filmgoers to hold on tightly to their seats and money. It warns viewers that the economy could spiral away again if they sit idly by and let it happen.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International and an instructor at Wake Technical Community College and NC State University. He has written for Film Matters and presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference.