24 City by Jia Zhangke
24 City is set in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The films main character is a 50-year-old state-owned factory building named Factory 420, a factory which is about to be demolished in order to make room for a mixed-use development that will include office buildings, apartment blocks, a multiplex theatre and a 5-star hotel. Zhangke is using Factory 420 as an allegory for China’s gradual gentrification. It shouldn’t be surprising that the screenings at the Winnipeg Cinematheque were sponsored by the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre since Winnipeg’s Chinatown has been facing a similar type of demolition and restructuring.
Zhangke blurs the line between fact and fiction by using scripted monologues, delivered by professional actors, playing the roles of workers. These recently laid off, solemn workers provide antidotes and recollections of their lives working at Factory 420. These reminiscences were shot in a the familiar talking heads documentary style and set to a score that, at times, was far too melodramatic. The fictional accounts were placed next to real footage of the factory shutting down and of brief glimpses into the lives of real workers making the hybrid complete.
Winnipeggers are no strangers to blurring the lines between fact and fiction. In fact, I would go as far as saying we have a tendency to embrace mythology. To quote Cocteau, “I’ve always preferred mythology to history. History is composed of truths which become lies, mythology of lies which become truth.”
The films climax consists of Su Na (played by actress Zhao Tao), a Beetle driving, yuppie daughter of two workers, providing a “testament” of the financial benefits of the new Chengdu. Na sees her parents working in, what she sees as, undesirable conditions and only wants a better life for them. This creates the appropriate juxtaposition between the tragic loss of the Factory and the optimism for the soon to be constructed city.
– Clint Enns
From UPTOWN Magazine September 3, 2009:
An emotional truth
24 City blurs the lines between fact and fiction – but the end result is wholly believable
Jia Zhangke, the renowned Chinese director behind 2004’s The World and 2006’s eccentric Still Life, seems to be spellbound by the constant change in his homeland. His latest, 24 City, is no exception, with scripted monologues and actual interviews with living employees of a soon-to-be demolished factory.
Taking place in the capital city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province, 24 City ostensibly documents the desecration of relic buildings, in this case, a munitions plant referred to as Factory 420, which is to be torn down so that a luxury apartment complex can be constructed.
Job losses reach upwards of 20,000, and this – as well as the political implications of the eradication of 50 years of history in one fell swoop – are Zhangke’s key concerns.
Scripted parts are juxtaposed against stories of Factory 420’s many employees left out in the cold, blurring the line between reality and fiction, and adding a theoretical dimension to Zhangke’s unique arrangement of the documentary. We’re never sure if what we’re being told is the truth, but both sets of stories turn out be versions of the same sort of despair. Both are touching and believable – so what’s the difference?
Zhangke captures the rain falling into the isolated factory, his camera hugging every steel rail, battered brick and stacked-up chair as they await imminent demolishment.
Most poignantly, we see the Chinese letters announcing the name of the building being hoisted down as the foremen wait on the ground.
The oddball casting choice of actress Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) may be a tip-off that some of the details in the monologues may not have happened, but Zhangke’s respectful doc hybrid shouldn’t pose a moral dilemma, as it already has for some testy critics and viewers.
Playing with what we perceive as the norm in documentaries, Zhangke comes up with his own concoction. 24 City is similar to his more ‘honest’ previous docs (including Useless and Our Ten Years) while adopting elements from his well-received fictional narratives.
– Aaron Graham