24 City (China/Japan/France 2008)

Joan Chen plays a worker who is nicknamed ‘Little Flower’, a character from a hit 1979 film starring . . . Joan Chen

Jia Zhangke has emerged as arguably the leading figure of what used to be called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers – trained in Beijing Film School, but then financed on independent projects by TV money and foreign investment. 24 City was a hit at Cannes in 2008 but wasn’t released until May 2010 in the UK. It marks something of a shift away from his ‘hometown films’ set in the Shanxi region of Northern China discussed in a posting last year by Nick, but sounds similar to Still Life (2006) which unfortunately I missed (but which Nick also reviewed). I’m so glad that I managed to catch 24 City on a cinema screen.

I thought that this was a wonderful film and worth seeing for several different reasons. For film studies it offers a fascinating case study for documentary practice. It is in fact a hybrid form melding documentary witness statements with performances of scripted ‘memories’ and a conventional documentary record. The title refers to a major redevelopment in the city of Chengdu in South-West China, in which a former large aeronautics factory is being dismantled in order to build a new commercial development (shops/apartments?) – to be called ’24 City’ in a reference to a local traditional poem. What gives the metaphor (i.e. capitalist enterprise replaces socialist defence planning) resonance is that the factory originally moved to Chengdu in the 1950s from the North East, bringing 4,000 workers with it and was then set up as a ‘secret’ entity, part of, but separated from, Chengdu itself.

As well as detailing the transformation of the factory site (the production facilities are dismantled and transported to an industrial park outside the city for a new venture) we are offered the personal stories of workers who came to Chengdu at various times over 50 years and learn what life was like in this unusual set-up. But Jia adds to these ‘true stories’ with a quartet of further personal stories ‘performed’ by leading actors (I think that these stories are actually composites put together from over a hundred interviews the production team conducted). The most moving of these is delivered by Lü Liping, a well-known Chinese actor who starred in two well-known Fifth Generation films, Old Well (1986) and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1993). The other familiar faces are the Chinese-American Joan Chen and Jia’s iconic actor Zhao Tao. Personally, I have no problem with this mixing of ‘real’ and ‘constructed’ witnesses. All witness statements are constructions – they are simply coded as such in different ways. However, many commentators do have problems with this strategy. The other ‘problem’ for some audiences is that the pace is slow and although there are beautifully shot scenes of the factory and work in the last few months of operation, most of the content is of talking heads. The witnesses are shown in long shot/MS as well as MCU and I thought that overall the visual quality of the film was very well thought out and for me added to a riveting watch.

The big question is, of course, what does Jia tell us about the workers (and the managers/contemporary capitalists), the history of the factory and the changes in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) over 50 years? The answer isn’t straightforward. Because of the techniques outlined above, I do think that sometimes the historical detail gets confusing. There are intertitles giving details about each interviewee, but there is still a sense of confusion about when events actually took place. Even the Press Pack is not totally clear on this. My knowledge of Chinese geography and history since 1949 is sufficient to have followed most of the narrative of the film, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly when and why things happened. For instance Jia in the Press Pack tells us that the factory was founded 60 years ago – i.e. before the foundation of the PRC – and that it moved to Chengdu in 1958. It was certainly operating in the early 1950s, making parts for the MiG-15s used by the Chinese and North Koreans in the 1950-53 War with the US and South Korea. Part of the confusion might arise because of a Chinese reluctance to give detailed historical commentary in case it attracts attention from the authorities. In his essay on the film, Tony Rayns suggests that the factory moved because of the rift between China and the Soviet Union in 1956 – i.e. defence manufacture moved further away from the Russian border.

But Jia claims that he doesn’t want to present a straight narrative history, instead he concentrates on personal lives (like Zhang and Zhuangzhuang in their historical family melodramas set in the period 1950-90). This throws up interesting popular culture observations such as the popularity of the Japanese TV series Blood Suspect in the 1980s which made its young stars into role models for Chinese youth. Similarly with Taiwanese pop. I do tend to get uneasy with these kinds of popular memories which often seem to be utilised in an attack on socialist planning and praise of capitalist enterprise. On the other hand, I find the community and ‘official’ mass singing to be nostalgic and quite romantic in its expression of solidarity. There was a tear in my eye to see a group of older female workers sing the Internationale. Overall, I think it best to see this as a poetic documentary about the working process and the flow of industrial history as well as a humanist drama about change in a society that seems at once familiar and alien at the same time. As someone who grew up in the 1950s with a wartime aircraft factory down the road and avoiding gangs of local kids on the streets as I made my way to school, much of this story rang true.

One of the films of the year released in UK cinemas.

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