Film Review: ‘The China Hustle’ Is a Sobering Reminder of the Perils of Unregulated Capitalism

By no fault of its own, Jed Rothstein’sThe China Hustle” is an eye-opening yet somewhat underwhelming documentary. Thanks to prominent media coverage and a slew of fiction and non-fiction films about the 2008 economic crisis, its revelations of fraud will hardly alarm even the most casually informed viewer. Many Americans have already become disillusioned with the nation’s financial institutions. But this fascinating documentary further adds an unexpected piece to a global puzzle of capitalism gone mad.

We don’t necessarily think of China when we talk about capitalist systems, but towards the end of the last decade, this East Asian nation laid the foundation for one of the biggest scams on Wall Street. Triggered by the collapse of markets in much of the Western world, investors were forced to search far and wide for profitable ventures. Enter China, which miraculously seemed to survive the financial crisis and even boasted of rapid growth. Due to prohibitions on direct investment in Chinese markets, however, Americans needed to devise a solution to cash in on this potential gold mine.

And soon enough, they found a way. Chinese companies began to merge with smaller American entities registered on the US stock exchange, luring investors with enticing projections of growth. But when a few skeptical investors realized that something was amiss, they embarked on a globetrotting investigation. Their efforts are the focus of this enlightening documentary, which disentangles this complex web of politics and commerce.

Indeed, the high stakes operation uncovered in the film is no child’s play. The players in this game include a wide cross-section of society, from middle class investors to presidential candidates. Of primary focus is Dan David, a guilty investor turned whistle-blower who exposed the absolutely brazen hustles being perpretated. Through him, the documentary amasses some impressive footage, like the shocking images of endless piles of rotting cardboard at a supposedly thriving paper manufacturer in China. In stark contrast, we also bear witness to the lavish, debauched parties held stateside to connect those deceitful companies with gullible investors.

These scenes significantly enliven the otherwise unexciting topic at hand. Although the myriad talking heads display deep knowledge and passion when explaining key terms like “reverse mergers” and “shorting” a stock, the staid direction sometimes struggles to translate that thrill. Indeed, it’s far from the flashy editing and eye-catching celebrity cameos employed by “The Big Short”.

Still, “The China Hustle” offers up invaluable information in a well-produced package. And despite its obvious anti-China perspective, it shrewdly acknowledges the unfortunate fact that these scams would just as easily have occurred on American soil if they could get away with it. As Dan David declares from the start, there are no good guys in this story.

Throughout much of “The China Hustle”, the somber cynicism can feel like preaching to the choir. It’s not until the ending that the gravity of the situation truly hits home, using interviews with average Americans who were adversely affected. Even more unforgettable is its final cautionary note, which all but promises – or more appropriately, threatens – a impending sequel in the works.

“The China Hustle” opens in select theaters March 30.

GRADE: (★★★)