FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

24 City

by BEN SONNENBERG

Jia Zhang-Ke, who turns 40 this year, is probably best known for his 2004 film, The World, a powerful tragedy that begins as satiric comedy. He has made a number of excellent entertainments, most notably Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2003), as well as the straightforward documentary, Useless (2007). The faux documentary, 24 City, is his best work to date. (Yu Wang and Nelson Yu Lik-wai are its virtuosic cinematographers.) It is a sequence of interviews with 12 workers, 4 of them played by actors, being questioned by an off-screen voice (that of the director).

Jia Zhang-ke’s film is about the transformation of Factory 420 in Chengdu, in central China, from a top-secret defense plant into a factory for consumer goods and finally into a housing development (called 24 City). Joan Chen plays the part of a beautiful woman of middle-age who in 1978, when she was in her 20s, was teased for her resemblance to the movie actress Joan Chen. “They called me ‘Little Flower,’” she recalls in her interview, rubbing her right arm nervously, shyly looking up at the camera and then modestly down at the floor. The scene is marvelous to behold for the lovely dance of expression across the actress’s face, the choreography of her gestures and the narration of her life – a tale of early love defeated by death, of blighted hope and aching resignation.

Guan Fengjiu, 72, not an actor, was formerly head of security at the factory. He is interviewed in a very large auditorium under a banner reading: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE PATH OF DEVELOPMENT CORRECTLY. WORK LOYALLY FOR OUR ARMY. Looking as exhausted as the exhortation above him, Guan tells of the factory’s history during the Korean War when it repaired MIG-15 fighters. It was sheltered there by the mountains, he explains, far out of range of enemy planes. As he speaks, two young men play badminton on a platform at the back of the empty hall in front of a mural of the Great Wall with missiles on one side and lowering clouds on the other. The scene is hilarious to the eye. In substance, it is anything but. 

“You can wear make-up at work?” Hao Dali (played by the experienced actress Lü Liping) says to a young woman behind a computer, who replies, “Foreign enterprises expect you to, or they won’t hire you.” Dali looks disconcerted, as if she thought the factory was still state-owned. She devoted 50 of her 71 years to the factory, first in defense work – she once bore “the national title of March 8th Red Banner Holder” – then in making consumer goods. Dali is interviewed in a shadowy room in her small apartment. She sits before a window, a cheerless view behind her, and her story just seems to pour out. A diligent, reliable and efficient worker, an uncomplaining and obedient citizen, she is a woman torn between patriotic pride and private grief. Once well-paid in an industry vital to the state, a state to which she sacrificed everything, including her only child, she cannot adjust to having become dependent on the charity of her nephews and nieces. The rolling motions of her hands as she tells of her saving and scrimping create a vortex-like moment that draws you deep into the film.

The climax of 24 City begins as we watch a pretty young girl, Su Na, making up her lips. Zhao Tao, the actress who plays her, seems at first to be reprising the role she had 6 years ago in Jia’s The World: selfish, vain, effervescent, gamine. (Zhao Tao stars in many of Jia’s films: she is to him as Anna Karina was to Godard in the 1960s.) Su Na dresses smartly, drives a white VW and chatters to her girlfriends on her cell phone on her way to her interview in Factory 420.  Here is where I went to school, she tells the interviewer as they walk through rooms with peeling paint, smudged walls, a forgotten blackboard. It wasn’t much of a school and, she cheerfully confesses, she wasn’t a good student. Nevertheless, she continues, her teacher was persuaded to pass her on to high school. Her coy look at the camera leaves no doubt as to how he was persuaded, and Su Na is as proud of her man-pleasing ways as she is of her designer clothes and accessories.

Yet when she pauses to regret disappointing her worker parents by not having gone to college, we get a glimpse of Su Na’s fundamental decency. She tells how a visit home altered her outlook on life. No description in a short review can do justice to the power of her words. She tells the interviewer she will buy an apartment for her parents in 24 City. I can do that, she says, and her parents will move to the city and they will be happy and all will be well.

At the end of 24 City, Su Na stands on the balcony of one of the apartments, the Burberry scarf gone from her neck, face illumined by the setting sun. She seems suddenly to have grown from a girl into a woman. Meanwhile, in an ever-changing light, the camera pans slowly from right to left, from near to far over the gigantic city of Chengdu. The future will be brighter. There is no doubt about it whatever. None.

24 City; 1 Disc; Cinema Guild; $29.95.
China; 2008; in Mandarin with English subtitles; 106 minutes.
Bonus features include: Cry Me A River, a short film by Jia Zhang-ke; an interview with Jia Zhang-ke by film critic Scott Foundas; an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com

February 09, 2016
Andrew Levine
Hillary Says the Darndest Things
Paul Street
Kill King Capital
Ben Burgis
Lesser Evil Voting and Hillary Clinton’s War on the Poor
Paul Craig Roberts
Are the Payroll Jobs Reports Merely Propaganda Statements?
Fran Quigley
How Corporations Killed Medicine
Ted Rall
How Bernie Can Pay for His Agenda: Slash the Military
Kristin Kolb
The Greatest Bear Rainforest Agreement? A Love Affair, Deferred
Joseph Natoli
Politics and Techno-Consciousness
Hrishikesh Joshi
Selective Attention to Diversity: the Case of Cruz and Rubio
Stavros Mavroudeas
Why Syriza is Sinking in Greece
David Macaray
Attention Peyton Manning: Leave Football and Concentrate on Pizza
Arvin Paranjpe
Opening Your Heart
Kathleen Wallace
Boys, Hell, and the Politics of Vagina Voting
Brian Foley
Interview With a Bernie Broad: We Need to Start Focusing on Positions and Stop Relying on Sexism
February 08, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Privatization: the Atlanticist Tactic to Attack Russia
Mumia Abu-Jamal
Water War Against the Poor: Flint and the Crimes of Capital
John V. Walsh
Did Hillary’s Machine Rig Iowa? The Highly Improbable Iowa Coin Tosses
Vincent Emanuele
The Curse and Failure of Identity Politics
Eliza A. Webb
Hillary Clinton’s Populist Charade
Uri Avnery
Optimism of the Will
Roy Eidelson Trudy Bond, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Jean Maria Arrigo, Brad Olson, and Bryant Welch
Preserve Do-No-Harm for Military Psychologists: Coalition Responds to Department of Defense Letter to the APA
Patrick Cockburn
Oil Prices and ISIS Ruin Kurdish Dreams of Riches
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, the UN and Meanings of Arbitrary Detention
Shamus Cooke
The Labor Movement’s Pearl Harbor Moment
W. T. Whitney
Cuba, War and Ana Belen Montes
Jim Goodman
Congress Must Kill the Trans Pacific Partnership
Peter White
Meeting John Ross
Colin Todhunter
Organic Agriculture, Capitalism and the Parallel World of the Pro-GMO Evangelist
Ralph Nader
They’re Just Not Answering!
Cesar Chelala
Beware of the Harm on Eyes Digital Devices Can Cause
Weekend Edition
February 5-7, 2016
Jeffrey St. Clair
When Chivalry Fails: St. Bernard and the Machine
Leonard Peltier
My 40 Years in Prison
John Pilger
Freeing Julian Assange: the Final Chapter
Garry Leech
Terrifying Ted and His Ultra-Conservative Vision for America
Andrew Levine
Smash Clintonism: Why Democrats, Not Republicans, are the Problem
William Blum
Is Bernie Sanders a “Socialist”?
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
We Can’t Afford These Billionaires
Enrique C. Ochoa
Super Bowl 50: American Inequality on Display
Jonathan Cook
The Liberal Hounding of Julian Assange: From Alex Gibney to The Guardian
George Wuerthner
How the Bundy Gang Won
Mike Whitney
Peace Talks “Paused” After Putin’s Triumph in Aleppo 
Ted Rall
Hillary Clinton: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Gary Leupp
Is a “Socialist” Really Unelectable? The Potential Significance of the Sanders Campaign
Vijay Prashad
The Fault Line of Race in America
Eoin Higgins
Please Clap: the Jeb Bush Campaign Pre-Mortem
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail