24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 52min

Jia Zhangke almost completely crosses the boundary from neorealism into real life with 24 City, and then stops just before he commits entirely. For all intents and purposes, this is still indeed a documentary, as he draws on authentic stories and voices from those who once worked and lived at Factory 420, an airplane engine manufacturing facility that was also essentially its own self-contained city. But sprinkled in among his real subjects are actors playing scripted parts, which have been adapted and condensed from over 130 authentic interviews. It isn’t easy to tell who or what is completely real, but this experimental blend suggests a shift away from objectivity of the past, and into an uncertain, postmodern future, where luxurious, high-rise apartments displace tight-knit working communities.

Authentic interviews mixed in with scripted, blurring boundaries of what constitutes absolute truth.

Our proclivity to assume that much of what we hear is true is challenged by Jia’s clearly staged interludes, such as one security guard wandering around the abandoned premises and finding an exam registration paper of an earlier interview subject. These scenes are no less poignant for their lack of verisimilitude, as they rather feel like extensions of the stories that have already been presented. And besides, beyond all of these individual perspectives, the truth of the main narrative – the destruction of an entire lifestyle and city – is evident simply in the changes we witness in Jia’s shooting location. 

Clouds of dust form beneath collapsing structures, labourers who might have worked at this factory had they been born a generation earlier pull it apart, and yet Jia never stops finding the poetry in this derelict architecture. After we spend time wandering around the piles of rubble, wooden planks, and crumbling walls, Jia ruptures the peace with a stone smashing through a window. Several more then follow, this act of violence from unseen perpetrators sounding like rain coming to wash this historical artefact away.

Jia doesn’t skimp on the visuals even with this foray into documentary filmmaking.

Meanwhile, in recurring shots of the factory’s entrance gradually transformation over time, Jia grounds the form of 24 City in something identifiable from the public’s perspective. Though this development will have its own major impact on the future of Chengdu, it is still just a product of a larger culture moving in the same direction. As our final interview subject, a child of workers from Factory 420, breaks down in tears about her family’s displacement, she reveals that it has only driven her to pursue one important goal – to own a bit of the apartment block that will replace the factory. 

 “The thing I want most now is to make a lot of money. Lots and lots of money. I want to buy an apartment in 24 City for my parents.” 

No matter how much China moves forward with the times, there will always be people mourning something that was lost in the past. For younger generations, it may be their parents’ prospects, or perhaps their own. For Jia, it is tied to the land itself – something tangible that his ancestors proudly built, and yet which is now razed to the ground in the name of progress.

Solid form in these recurring shots of the factory’s transformation.

24 City is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi.

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