Over the past 12 years, Jia Zhang-ke has built his remarkable body of work around the contradictions and absurdities of a China that’s moved from a repressive communism with a struggling economy to a slightly less repressive capitalism engaged in a rapid and total project of modernization in an alarmingly short period of time. Drawing on situations both real and imagined, Jia’s films - particularly his more recent works - revolve around settings which either stand at the crux of the country’s modernizing impulses (the mass evacuations in Still Life necessitated by the Three Gorges Dam project) or are symbolically evocative of China’s new global standing (the world-in-miniature simulacrum of the amusement park in The World), while drawing on increasingly surreal visual juxtapositions to bring home the essential strangeness as well as the human cost of the nation’s re-invention.
Both elements (setting, surreal juxtapositions) are in play in 24 City, Jia’s largely documentary work revolving around the demolition of a massive government factory - formerly charged with manufacturing military aeronautics - to make way for a luxury condo development. Although the set-up lacks the same absurdo-tragic resonance as, say, that of Still Life, as City works its way through the series of interviews (both real and staged) with former workers, children of workers and executives at Factory 420 that constitute the film’s principal content, what emerges is the sense of a workplace as total environment. And while the assembly line was clearly no utopia, the absence of a certain way of life (one in which everything – schooling, entertainment, medical care – is provided by the employer) is a clearly felt loss among at least some of the subjects. Much of the stories the people tell are overwhelmingly sad. One woman outlines the woes that followed after she was laid off from the factory in the early 1990s. Another man reminisces about his mentor who taught him never to throw away any tool, no matter how worn. When, later, he goes to visit this man, he finds an old, decrepit creature with failing memory.
While these interview segments – which Jia intercuts with footage of the factory remnants, snippets of poetry, or simply a few seconds of black screen – gain resonance from the knowledge that these people and their sorrows are real, the director soon complicates our response to the material. For the final few segments he brings in actors to deliver scripted monologues that are seemingly indistinguishable from the unstaged interviews. Although many viewers will recognize Joan Chen in the longest of these sequences – especially after, in the film’s one too-cute meta conceit, she informs the camera that people used to tell her she looked like Joan Chen – there’s nothing else in the segment to differentiate it from the preceding interviews. Still, it won’t do to make too much out of Jia’s formal strategies. He’s always been a director who’s felt free to call on both fictional and non-fictional elements to achieve his ends and, while he’s never combined them so explicitly in a single film, it seems an approach wholly consistent with his methods. Although reality may often yield oddities beyond what fiction can conceive, the reverse is just as often true. Here, Jia takes documentary (which is by no means exempt from falsehood itself) as far as it can go and then supplements it with his own reality. If he doesn’t distinguish between the two, it’s because the distinction doesn’t really matter. Both might as well be true.
Jia is nothing if not a visual artist and, for all the importance of the words spoken in the interview segments, it’s through its images that 24 City makes its impact most deeply felt. Along with longtime DP Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu, the director crafts a sharp high-def palette, equally suited to capturing the dull grays of the cavernous factory remains and the livid orange of a molten rod heated within its crumbling walls. Jia fills out his film with long, static takes of workers posing or masses of buildings standing on their last legs, giving the viewer ample time to contemplate the drawn faces of the dispossessed or the block-like structures about to tumble to the ground. But it’s in two images in particular that Jia gets to the essential strangeness at the heart of his nation’s history.
The first may be the oddest juxtaposition of them all, a mass of signifiers better understood as surrealist collage than coherent statement. As an old man in the right foreground of the screen talks to the camera about his experience making weaponry at the factory during the Korean War, a game of badminton unfolds on a stage in the background against a mural of an ancient Chinese fortress, the viewer’s eye continually distracted from the shot’s ostensible subject by the activity unfolding in the rear. In the other image, a woman walks across the factory grounds en route to the in-house hospital. As she carries her IV drip in a raised hand, she passes a small military airplane that serves as a reminder of the factory’s past, a past with which she seems inextricably bound up. The younger generation, represented in the film’s final segment by Su Na (Jia regular Zhao Tao) - the daughter of factory laborers who now works as a personal shopper for rich patrons - may be able to adjust, even hope to buy one of the upscale condos being built on the old industrial grounds; for the film’s older subjects, no such luxury exists. The Factory 420 experience may ultimately have consisted of intensive, alienated labor in the service of a dubious cause, but that isn’t to say that in the building’s demolition, and particularly when considered on the individual level, something of value isn’t lost.