Saturday, June 13, 2009

24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhang Ke)

Published at InReviewOnline

Welcome to 24 City. Three generations of Chinese men and women want to tell you their story. Hold your judgments; hear them out. The oldest generation, mostly retired, wants to know that it all meant something. Their factory is being destroyed, relocated, modernized - the factory they poured their souls into. Factory #420. The one that built the airplanes during the Chinese battle against "US imperialism" in Korea, that helped the Chinese Army beat back the Vietnamese troops attempting to stop Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. In its place, a real estate company is building a luxury apartment complex called "24 City" that they could never afford to live in.

The youngest generation wants a new life. Growing up, Su Na (Tao Zhao) never saw her mother working in the factory. She left home as soon as she turned 18, floating between boyfriends, jobs, apartments. One day she decides to visit her parents, but discovers she's lost the key to their home. She heads to the factory to find her mother; when she enters, she's shocked by the noise. It overwhelms her. Frantically she searches for her mother. All the employees look alike in their uniforms. In a corner she spots an old worker, doubled over, alone, sorting scraps of iron. It's her mother, but at first Su can't even tell if it's a man or a woman. She flees the factory, crying.

Somewhere in between lives a middle generation. They've raised (and lost) families at the factory. They're too old to start over, but still young enough to dream of another life.

Jia Zhang Ke's film 24 City organically blends interviews of actual factory workers with scripted interviews with actors. Neither sentimental nor political, it's simultaneously his most emotional and most mature work to date. More than the chronicle of a factory's destruction, it's about a people experiencing the end of Chinese socialism and the birth of Chinese capitalism. With several subjects, it takes some time for their story's real meaning to come out. But it's well worth the wait. Their memories and pains tell us so much about a country that seems to defy definition.

Shot in high-def digital video, the gray factory, mammoth machines, and perpetual smog threaten to engulf us with their detail. Whereas his last HD film Still Life embraced the beautiful wash of colors that the medium seems uniquely capable of producing, 24 City's cinematography vividly articulates the alienation and loss that connects the interviews. Director of Photography and Zhang Ke regular Yu Lik-wai (Still Life, The World, Platform) seems more comfortable with piercing close-ups than in Jia's other films. He hides little from us; we see their tears, scars, wrinkles. Even the run-down, pock-marked factory takes on a life of its own, telling its own story.

Final Thought: "The earth shall rise on new foundations; we have been naught, we shall be all." A group of old women crow L' Internationale while a demolition crew destroys their factory. Welcome to 24 City.

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