24 City (2008) Movie Review

“24 City” is the latest offering from sixth generation Mainland China director Jia Zhangke and sees him continuing to explore themes of the country’s modern history and economic progress. Here, he does this through a semi-documentary that focuses on the story of a munitions factory, once moved across the country and now being demolished to make way for the titular residential development, named after a quote from a Tang Dynasty poem. Jia is easily one of China’s most interesting and challenging directors, and so it should come as no surprise that the film is a complex affair which works on many levels, both metaphorical and intimate. He is also one of the country’s most acclaimed and award winning overseas exports, and as well as performing well at the domestic box office, the film enjoyed a successful run at overseas festivals, screening in competition at Cannes in 2008, with Jia being nominated for the prestigious Golden Palm.

The film relates the story of Factory 420 in the south-western city of Chengdu, charting its history from its move from its original location, its role as munitions and military production and later as part of the new market economy, to its eventful demise. Rather than simply presenting dry facts, Jia does this through a series of interviews with people whose lives have revolved around the factory in one way or another, including workers, their families, and even those whose childhood memories of the place are already fading. Through this, he tells not only the tale of the factory itself, but also of the country, its push towards economic development and the societal changes that have resulted.

Of course, “24 City” is not simply a straightforward chronicle, or indeed a documentary, with Jia deliberately choosing to blur the lines between fact and fiction by employing actresses to play some of the interviewees, with their testimony being interwoven with that of the actual factory people themselves. These include Jia regular Zhao Tao (who also starred in his “Still Life”) as a twenty-something fashion consultant who remembers her mother’s years of hard toil, Joan Chen (“Lust, Caution”), playing an unmarried middle-aged former factory worker nicknamed ‘Little Flower’ due to her resemblance to the actress in one of her famous early roles, and Lu Liping (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”) as an elderly retired worker who relates the heart breaking story of how she lost her young son during the forced relocation of the factory and its staff.

Also intriguing is the fact that the film was actually partially funded by the development corporation which demolished Factory 420 to make way for 24 City, raising further questions as to Jia’s intentions and message. Certainly, this multi-layered approach works very well, with the actresses turning in wholly naturalistic performances and being indistinguishable from the rest of the cast, presenting the picture of a past which for many in modern China is already drifting into fiction.

The film, and indeed the factory works very well as a metaphor for changes in the country and the state, highlighting the enforced break up of families, with its older interviewees and characters sharing a sense of community which at the same time separates them from modern society. This gives rise to the question as to how the older generations, who toiled under Maoist doctrines can now fit into the new market led economy, depicting the way in which peoples’ lives are being changed, supposedly for the greater good, though often at great cost. As usual, Jia’s approach is ambiguous, and offers no easy answers, challenging the viewer in thoughtful fashion. Intellectual concerns aside, the film is also a deeply intimate affair, with many of the interviewees relating moving and tragic personal stories, making it clear that for many the factory has not only been a part of their lives, but to a very real extent was their lives. These range from tales of loss and struggle, to younger people whose recollections of the factory and its community are fragmented, and in some cases distant, but are no less affecting. Although balanced and never nostalgic, the film is nevertheless genuine and moving, and has at times an almost haunted, melancholy air, especially towards the end, and the scenes of the factory being demolished carry considerable impact.

“24 City” is perhaps more accessible and less obscure than some of Jia Zhangke’s earlier works, and can be enjoyed either at face value or for its fascinating underlying themes. Well crafted and structured, it engages both the heart and mind, and is a must-see for anyone interested in modern Chinese history and society.

Zhang Ke Jia (director) / Zhang Ke Jia, Yongming Zhai (screenplay)
CAST: Jianbin Chen
Joan Chen … Gu Minhua / Xiao Hua
Liping Lü … Hao Dali
Tao Zhao … Su Na

Buy 24 City on DVD