Jia Zhangke is one of the world's preeminent filmmakers, an essentially contemplative director whose considerable talent is further amplified by the significance of his material — namely, everyday life in the most dynamic economy on Earth.
Jia's last feature, Still Life (2006), was set in Fengjie, an ancient river city flooded and rebuilt as part of China's monumental Three Gorges Dam Project; his latest, 24 City, takes place in and around a giant, formerly-top-secret aircraft plant in Chengdu City, Sichuan. The camera is often static, but, as with Still Life, the world is in flux: Again, the subject is displacement. Having been purchased by a state-controlled real estate developer, China Resources, Factory 420 is slated for demolition. More precisely, it will be converted into a luxury housing complex named 24 City — condos at the cost of only 20,000 jobs.
24 City is largely oral history, real and invented. It's mainly populated by retired workers, posed in situ and talking about their lives. They are, in effect, flesh-and-blood monuments of Mao's China. The film opens like Metropolis, with masses of Factory 420 employees filing into and filling the plant's auditorium for the ceremonial Transfer of Land. Afterward, a retired mechanic visits his now-ancient foreman, a model worker whose memory is failing. Other witnesses appear. The factory's former head of security recounts the details of Korean War industrialization while sitting in the auditorium — which is empty, save for two guys onstage, playing badminton against a backdrop of the Great Wall flanked by oversized missiles. Jia punctuates these human portraits with a sense of disappearance: recurring shots of the imposing factory gate — the sign dismantled and replaced — and the progressively disassembled and rubble-strewn factory floor.
On the one hand, 24 City seems an ambivalent, aestheticizing exercise in Communist nostalgia — Jia's images are so deliberately framed, they might have come from an Andy Warhol screen test or Chantal Akerman video installation. On the other hand, this subversively old-fashioned hymn to industrial production is filled with offbeat, vaguely absurd details (an elderly worker walking past the doomed plant holding aloft her bag of IV fluid as if it were a torch of freedom) and interspersed with sentimental pop songs and melancholy poems, including Yeats' "The Coming of Wisdom with Time": "Through all the lying days of my youth/I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;/Now I may wither into the truth."
Just what is that superannuated truth? 24 City is not exactly cinema vérité. As he had with Fengjie, Jia originally planned to make two movies about Factory 420, one fictional and the other documentary. To the discomfit of many critics, however, the two modes merged in a single work: 24 City is more obviously documentary than most of Jia's fiction films, and also vice versa. Three of the interviews are staged — the most jarring is a monologue by a factory worker turned beautician, nicknamed "Little Flower" by her comrades because she so closely resembles the heroine of the 1979 movie that made Joan Chen a star. She's played by Joan Chen.
History does have actors, although not perhaps in the Marxist sense. Jia's subjects grow progressively youthful and increasingly professional, dramatizing the shift from collectivist to individual aspiration. Placed in a vaguely op art environment, a thirtysomething TV news reader, who grew up in the total environment that was Factory 420, recalls his distaste for industrial labor. And when the old factory building is finally demolished, a cloud of dust dissolves to an image of Jia's muse, Zhao Tao, applying lip gloss before the mirror in a high-rise apartment.
Zhao's character also had a Factory 420 childhood. But, as poised and fashionable as a model, she grew up to be a heroine of consumption — a professional shopper who, each month, travels to Hong Kong to buy clothes and accessories for the wealthy women of Chengdu. As dusk falls over the city, Zhao recounts a dramatic tale of her parents' disappointments and suffering. Close to tears, she declares that she wants to earn enough money to buy them an apartment in 24 City: It will be hard, but "I know I can do it — I'm the daughter of a worker!" The apparent hollowness of this proletarian pride (evidence of Yeats' "lying days" of youth?) is accentuated by a burst of ambient technopop.
Released a few months back in China, 24 City has proven to be Jia's most commercially successful film. But despite his deliberate mise-en-scène and the hyperclarity of the high-definition images, it's not an easy movie to read. Is the filmmaker bemused or amused by a factory bureaucrat's earnest remark that "our offices will become a five-star hotel"? And what is one to make of the casually revealed information that the movie itself was partially financed by 24 City's developer? Have we been watching a kind of infomercial? Is there irony or pathos in the juxtaposition of retired workers enthusiastically singing "The International" as their factory collapses?