Films about the 2008 economic collapse are a dime a dozen, from Oscar-nominated docs (The Inside Job) to star-studded blockbusters (The Big Short). While the goal of turning our national catastrophe into a two-hour teachable moment is a noble one, at this point they run the risk of becoming cliche and the message getting lost. The China Hustle, a winning new doc, recycles a lot of familiar elements from prior efforts but adds a new wrinkle: its brand of economic malfeasance is—gasp!—still going on.
The China Hustle focuses on a little-known type of financial fraud called “reverse mergers.” Essentially, Chinese companies are attaching themselves to defunct American companies that are still listed on the stock exchange. Then they mislead (read: lie to) their investors about their revenue, artificially inflate their prices, get American investors drooling, and bring boatloads of U.S. money into China. How do they pull this off? A convenient Chinese policy that makes lying to foreign investors completely legal.
The story is told through the eyes of several investment bankers who sniff out the problem and conduct their own investigations, picking up the slack left by the federal government, which is determinedly uninterested in the problem. As these investors “short” the fraudulent companies—essentially betting that fraud will out itself—they reveal dual motives: to root out corruption and make a boatload of money doing it. “There are no heroes in this story, including me,” says Dan David, the goateed, middle-aged owner of a boutique investment firm. But when you compare his no-nonsense, working-class character with the faceless corporate interests behind this fraud, he’s an easy guy to root for.
As it goes on, The China Hustle morphs into a traditional man-against-the-system doc, with David hauling himself down to Congress to sit in on a Congressional hearing in the hopes that something of substance will be discussed (spoiler alert: it’s not). The film’s frustration with government, while not exactly revelatory, remains valuable. David’s description of his meeting with a young staffer who, after listening to him describe this hidden fraud being perpetrated on millions of Americans, suggests that David organize a “letter-writing campaign” is enough to rouse all but the most disillusioned viewers.
Still, these hard truths are occasionally overshadowed by the film’s failures on the cinematic front. The voice-over by Jed Rothstein is painfully drab, and it undercuts the drama at key moments. It’s not hard to find a celebrity actor to voice these docs, and a Liev Schreiber or Matt Damon would have gone a long way here. Perhaps recognizing his limitations as a voice-over actor, Rothstein overcompensates with a pulsing score of driving strings that makes you feel the film reaching to heighten the drama when it should be letting the full ramifications of China’s fraud dawn on the audience.
In other words, The China Hustle works best when it lets the truth speak for itself. Toward the end, we meet a trio of regular joes who invested in these companies and whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the fraud. While I wish I could have spent longer with them, the film is understandably more interested in the future than the past. It’s a warning shot, urging us to take a closer look at publicly traded Chinese companies, which comprise $1.1 trillion of the U.S. market. Ultimately, it does what an issue documentary must do and nothing more: spell out a problem, underline its urgency, and leave the viewer wondering what, if anything, they can do about it.
The China Hustle opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.