Director: Jia Zhangke
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Chengdu, in the South-West of China, the present day. 420, a state-owned factory that previously produced military parts and equipment and in the more peaceful recent past changed and became a producer of consumer goods, is closing down. The factory comprised part of a wider community, kept secret and isolated from surrounding areas. The entire area has been bought by a private company, who are renovating the area into a modern residential complex, known as 24 City. A filmmaker interviews a number of people whose lives have been shaped by the factory; those who grew up there, those who worked there and those who lived there. These individuals reminisce about the factory and what it means to them, as well as their personal stories living in the community. These include men who have worked at the factory since its heyday in the 1950s, women who were sacked during the start of the decline of the factory in the 1980s, a news anchor reporting on the close of the factory and a young daughter of a worker. As the factory is gradually torn down, the development of the new residential complex becomes more apparent.
Those familiar with the films of Jia Zhangke will not be too surprised by the basis for ’24 City’. Since ‘Xiao Wu’, he has tackled themes arising from China’s successful economic transition since the 1980s. His outlook remains as ambiguous as ever; his main focus is concentrating on those who have been overlooked in the new capitalist China, those whose lives have been affected in the most uncertain fashion. Much like ‘Still Life’, the director investigates the wholesale effects upon an entire community, which has been relocated or lost in the name of economic progress. Jia Zhangke’s previous film featured the demolition of Fengjie, a town that made way for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced over a million Chinese in total. ’24 City’ demonstrates how capitalism is equally unsentimental.
From interviews with older workers, we discover how this community previously moved according to the demands of the state. This community was originally situated in the Northeastern provinces for strategic reasons because of the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. Concerns about an American attack on military factories meant that they were relocated to the Southwest of China, such as 420, now based in Chengdu. This is a similar premise to Xiaoshuai Wang’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’. In both, communities are resettled literally across the entire country (a journey which took 15 days according to one interviewee, who lost her son on the way), without choice, and yet when these communities have outlived their economic use, they are just disregarded and moved on. The factory exists almost as a microcosm for Chinese economic progress since Communist rule began. What began as a military factory became one producing consumer goods for domestic and international use in the 1980s, reflecting Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to open up the Chinese economy. Demands for increased efficiency and output had adverse effects on this community, with many employees losing their jobs because they were competing with other domestic factories producing the same goods. Factories inevitably lost out from competition, which explains the fate of 420, now demolished to accommodate homes for China’s new economic elite. It is not just a factory that is being destroyed but also an entire community, which also included education and recreation facilities, but there is little provision for readjustment. These economic reforms have changed the mindset of the Chinese youth on the other hand. The interviewee played by Tao Zhao, born in 1982, is accustomed to the China’s shifting priorities, and is certainly more money-orientated than her predecessors. Compare her with her parents for instance, and one might suggest a reflection of China’s change from a collectivist economic outlook to entrepreneurial capitalism.
If this makes ’24 City’ and Jia Zhangke’s work in general sound dry and too overtly political to be engaging, then it should not be forgotten that he is also a technically gifted director. Having used animated sequences in ‘The World’ and a UFO in ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke eschews realism when necessary to enhance his point. For ’24 City’, he rejects a truly realistic form of documentary, replacing it with a form of docudrama. From the nine interviewees, five are genuine workers from 420 and its community, but four are actors (including Joan Chen and the director’s muse Tao Zhao) whose stories are a composite from those that Jia Zhangke discovered during the film’s production. During the interview with ‘Little Flower’, the character played by Joan Chen, we learn that she was given this nickname from a film of the same name (which is also shown on a TV set) in which Joan Chen acted because of her resemblance to the actress. Of course this is just a cinematic in-joke, but it takes on greater significance because it was a rare pre-Fifth generation film that was more than just political propaganda. In that sense, the films of Jia Zhangke continue that trend of observing China in a distinctly impartial and objective way.
As a symbol of China’s economic progress, ’24 City’ is much more considerable and poignant than even Jia Zhangke imagined because of events that occurred in the Chengdu region recently. In May 2008, a devastating earthquake caused much damage to the area, with 80,000 deaths and another 20,000 injured. This incident reinforces how brittle economic development is in the face of natural disasters in regions already known to be precarious. Yet the rush towards progress demands risk-taking and redeveloping areas regardless of the consequences, whether natural or social.
Not since Antonioni has a director made such effective use of images within each framed shot to reflect his themes. Perhaps the most affecting scene in the film is during the final days of the community – on the roof of an apartment block, a young girl skates, whilst the expressway in the background becomes increasingly busy in grid locked. This scene evidently plays out for some time given that it turns from day to night in this time. It is an impressive juxtaposition of images, the blending of this traditional community and the economically progressive world about to replace it in one frame. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor not only for Jia Zhangke’s films overall but also the modern China; an uneasy balance between convention and evolution, between the past and the future.