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A Remarkable New Chinese Film
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