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Chinese Reality #18: 24 City

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art (May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

24 City (dir. Jia Zhangke)

24 City (dir. Jia Zhangke)

Er shi si cheng si (24 City)

2008. China. Directed by Jia Zhangke. With Jianbin Chen, Joan Chen, Liping Lu.

Throughout his distinguished career, Jia Zhangke has blurred the boundary between documentary and fiction like no other Chinese director. At a state-owned factory being demolished to make way for a luxury apartment complex, Jia explores the history of the site from the 1950s to the present through nine documentary-style interviews. Five are with actual residents of the site; four are fictional stories delivered by professional actors. Through this hybrid storytelling mode, Jia exposes the fictional constructs behind documentary factuality, and reflects on the performative aspects of history and memory.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

Why did you decide to include fictional characters among your interviewees? ‘There wasn’t such an arrangement at the beginning, because I only planned to make a documentary to record the worker’s oral history. Nevertheless, every interviewee gave me the urge to imagine the rest of his story. There were words unspoken, and sentences half finished. I thought I could only fully comprehend these real people’s feelings through imagination. I’m not a historian writing history; I’m a film director reconstructing experiences incurred in history.’

Jia Zhangke, interviewed by Edmund Lee, Time Out

The stories that emerge paint a grim portrait of modern Chinese history—many speakers describe the shattering of families due to the state’s coercive power—as well as of the present day, with its soul-killing loneliness and materialism. Yet all the storytelling—whether culled or scripted—comes off as the sort of fictions that people tell themselves in order to define their own identity in the face of dehumanizing pressures.

– Richard BrodyThe New Yorker, February 15 2010

The experience of watching this back and forth between the real and the imagined, and between people and places, is at once immersive and distancing. Because the names of Joan Chen and the Jia regular Zhao Tao appear in the opening credits, I understood the first time I watched the movie that they were delivering performances. But I was uncertain about most of the other people, even though Mr. Jia does include images of some workers on old identity cards. There’s something slightly disorienting about a work that doesn’t have the usual markers that assure you that now you’re watching a fiction, now you’re watching a documentary, which, as I realized on second viewing, can work beautifully for a movie about profound dislocation.

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times, June 4 2009

24 City has proven to be Jia’s most commercially successful film. But despite his deliberate mise-en-scène and the hyper-clarity of the high-definition images, it’s not an easy movie to read. Is the filmmaker bemused or amused by a factory bureaucrat’s earnest remark that “our offices will become a five-star hotel”? And what is one to make of the casually revealed information that the movie itself was partially financed by 24 City’s developer? Have we been watching a kind of infomercial? Is there irony or pathos in the juxtaposition of retired workers enthusiastically singing “The International” as their factory collapses?

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, June 3 2009

If the idea of representing a true national reality is a core objective of Chinese independent cinema, present circumstances of distribution beg the question, to whom is this representation directed to? The answer may determine to what extent 24 City is an act of compromise betraying the independent movement for commercial success versus an act of negotiation in delivering the independent movement to a wider audience.

Kevin B. Lee, Cineaste, September 2009 (republished on Fandor)

We have collected a brief sample both American print reviews of the film, and Chinese responses from various sources, from press to online audience reviews. And, in a nod to Jia Zhangke’s playfulness, we are withholding the identities of the reviewers until the very end. Just as Jia had Americans guessing which performances were by actors and which by non-actors, can you guess which of these reviews were written by American film critics, and which were by Chinese?

“Play the 24 City East-West Match Game,” dGenerate Films

– A photo-essay update on the 24 City complex by Kevin B. Lee for Fandor

Let’s consider each of the roles played by these actors, as well as the overall historical development implied by the order in which they appear–a pattern that was carefully traced by James Naremore in Film Quarterly (Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 4) when he placed this film at the head of his annual ten-best list. Lu Luping, first seen carrying an IV drip bottle, plays Hao Dali, the oldest, who joined the factory the same year it opened, when she was 21. Her heartbreaking story about losing her three-year-old son on a rest-stop during her journey by boat from Shanghai to Chengdu– whether this is a “real” story derived from an actual interview, a fiction, or something in between—followed by her watching an old propaganda film on TV, painfully dramatizes the degree to which nationalist and military obligations could supersede family in 1958. This is in striking contrast to the final interview with Su Na (Jia regular Zhao Tao), born in 1982 in Chengdu, who voices a very different kind of nationalist sentiment when she defends her capitalist career as a “personal shopper” who has purchased a new car to enhance her “credibility”, and who tearfully says she wants to buy her factory-worker parents an apartment in the new 24 City development. (It’s important to recognize that while westerners tend to view communism as “collectivist” and capitalism as “individualist,” the Chinese state has tended to view each practice over half a century of social transformation as a particular form of civic duty.) And in between these polar extremes are the monologues delivered by Song Weldong (Chen Jianbin), born in 1966 in Chengdu–an assistant to the factory’s general manager, seated at a counter, who recalls street-gang fights and having been spared from one beating by the recent death of Zhou Enlai—and by the somewhat younger Xiao Hua (Joan Chen), a factory worker named after the eponymous heroine of one of Chen’s earliest films, who plays on audience recognition by discussing her close resemblance to Joan Chen. If the latter registers as a joke, it’s a joke with some serious intent, because Jia evidently wants the Chinese viewers’ emotions aroused by these monologues to echo those solicited by the same actors in fiction films, and he also wants the viewers to be aware of these echoes. And clearly the juxtapositions of nationalist consciousness with both street fights and business, as emphasized in these latter two monologues, are part of the ambiguities and ambivalences that Jia is intent on exploring, with pop culture and state policy both playing relevant roles.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, from his essay written for Cinema Guild DVD release of the film

In an interview with Jia Zhangke, Dudley Andrew asked the director to explain the meaning of the green tinge to the image in 24 City.  The hue, it turns out, was deliberately mixed into the colour palette of the film during postproduction. Why? Jia offered an intriguing answer. When he was a small child growing up in northern China in the late 1970s and 80s, he saw the green colour everyday and everywhere, often painted one metre high on walls of both private homes and public places—hospitals, offices, classrooms, and state-run factories. For Jia, green is apparently a very personal memory; yet instead of using the colour to express an individual sentiment, he “exhibits” it rather matter-of-factly by integrating it into the film texture

Jiwei Xiao, Senses of Cinema, June 2011


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