Perhaps the most famous of the Lumière Brothers’ works is “Workers Leaving the Factory,” a 50-second film which consists of a static shot of what its title describes. This ancestral cinematic image is echoed by several shots of Jia Zhang-ke’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful, documentary/fiction hybrid, “24 City.”
The experiences of Chinese women are very prominent in this film, much more so than in Jia’s previous work, thanks to the influence of Jia’s co-screenwriter, female poet and Chengdu native Zhai Yongming. Jia’s densest and most complex film to date encompasses reality and fiction, and is peppered with quotations from Chinese poetry and William Butler Yeats. Music, especially, plays a key role: excerpts of the Internationale play on the soundtrack, workers in the film sing both patriotic anthems and romantic pop songs, and a Chinese opera troupe (led by Joan Chen) performs within the crumbling walls of the factory.
“24 City” was originally conceived by Jia as a straight documentary; however, the film slowly transformed into a rich collage of stories and physical memorabilia (worker ID cards, photographs, letters) that document the changes across 50 years of Chinese history, refracted through the collective consciousness of this factory. “As far as I’m concerned, history is always a blend of facts and imagination,” Jia said in a directors’ statement. This could refer to both Maoist policies and propaganda that shaped the fortunes of this factory, and to the nature of Jia’s project. Jia keeps his focus on individual human stories, a riposte to the Chinese government’s insistence on requiring workers to constantly take it on the chin for the good of society, to be displaced and replaced at will, and to always be on time and never miss a day.
“24 City” cements Jia’s status as perhaps the most vital and poetic chronicler of present-day China, and the economic and physical changes wrought by this country’s rapid upward mobility. “I see movies as a tool to record memory,” Jia told me during an interview I conducted with him at last year’s New York Film Festival, after a press screening of his previous film “Useless.” His latest film fulfills this stated aim, and then some. The stunning, hyper-real digital images provided by cinematographers Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu bring the history and the architecture of this factory into nearly three-dimensional vivid focus.
This is a timely film considering the often harsh spotlight placed on China this year as a result of the Beijing Olympics. However, far from the vapid, simpleminded analyses offered by most American mainstream media, Jia explores these issues with poetry and melancholic beauty. Construction and factory life have surely never been given more vivid and lyrical form than here. Although the film has its share of poignant moments, Jia manages to inject a fair amount of humor in this scenario, one example being a particularly cheeky meta-cinematic reference: Joan Chen’s character, Little Flower, is a “factory beauty” famed for her uncanny resemblance to…Joan Chen.
“24 City” is initially challenging and unsettling due to the unusual nature of his project, but Jia, as always, richly rewards the viewer’s patience, and in the final shots that cap Zhao Tao’s tour de force performance (what a treasure this actress is!), the film culminates with a stunning visual epiphany.
“24 City” screened at the New York Film Festival, and will be released by the Cinema Guild in early 2009.