Dir. Jia Zhangke.China, 2008. 107 min.
The latest chapter in Jia Zhangke’s chronicles of modern Chinese history is certain to reinforce the director’s status as an international arthouse icon. Further exposure could come from the TV-friendly nature of 24 City’s pseudo-documentary format. Consisting of five authentic interviews and four fictional monologues delivered by actors (but presented in a documentary format) it uses the removal of a large industrial complex from the centre of Chengdu, to be replaced by flashy new high-rise luxury apartments (24 City), as the departure point for an account of rapid-pace changes in China over the last half-century.
Purists may find it hard to accept this as an actual piece of history, baulking at the use of actors and fabricated testimonies. But fact and fiction are always inter-related and Jia’s effort may well be regarded as a future source of information on the recent past of world’s fastest-rising superpower.
The military equipment factory known variously as 420 (an army code name) or the Chengfa complex, was launched 60 years ago in a city called Shenyang and moved 10 years later to Chengdu. Starting with the official announcement, at the end of 2007, that the complex is about to be dismantled and relocated out of town, Jia’s interviews (the authentic ones) take him to retired factory workers from its very early days, right up to the present generation. Through them, a large chunk of China’s contemporary history is fleshed out and brought to screen in personal, clear and palpable terms.
They accepted national hardships as personal obligations to work harder and remain poor; they believed that nobody should miss a day’s work. Their ingrained sense of economy and thrift would not allow them to throw away old tools. During military crises in Korea and Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution, people were moved around the country en masse, children left behind and lost on the way as their parents kept moving. Throughout it all, they bent their heads and submitted.
The Chengfa complex functioned for them as a very large family in which everyone pulled together for a common cause, and an entity which provided schools for the workers’ children. Throughout, they displated a resilience that is rarely encountered now outside that part of the world.
The troubles of China are reflected in the ups and downs of the factory and the people working for it. The same goes for the gradual opening of economic and social restrictions and the penetration of Western influence throughout the country. This is all eloquently expressed not only in interviews but also through the changing aspects of the city, the composition of the soundtrack, the quick portraits of people on the street, and last but not least, in quotes from poets, not only Chinese but also Yeats.
The last four, and most dramatic, contributions come from actors, all of them performing well but still these are easily identifiable as performances, making them possibly less persuasive. Ironically, Joan Chen impersonates a worker known for her resemblance to movie star Joan Chen while Zhao Tao (a Jia staple) plays a young woman wheeling and dealing between Hong Kong and Chengdu who dreams of making enough money to put her hard-working parents in one of the ‘24 City’ flats to be built on the site.
Superbly shot by two of China’s leading cameramen, Yu Likwai (Jia’s partner in the Xstream production company) and Wang Yu (Shouzhou River, Lost in Beijing), this picture may appeal to the mind more than it does to emotions. Jia purposely refrains from voicing any opinions here and its authenticity may be arguable, but if pure fiction is so often taken as historical testimony, why shouldn’t half-fiction qualify for the same honours’
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