Chinese Displacements in 24 CITY

An essay written for the Cinema Guild’s DVD, released in 2009. – J.R.

24 City is a documentary about the transformation of Factory 420 in

Chengdu from the secret manufacture of military aircraft engines in 1958

to, after the Vietnam War, a downsized and remodeled facility producing

consumer products, and then, more recently, into a privately owned

real-estate development called “24 City”. This sounds pretty

straightforward, but because it’s a Jia Zhangke film, it qualifies as an

adequate description only in the most skeletal fashion. Factory 420

employed almost 30,000 workers, so a lot of life experience and

displacement is involved in this multifaceted story — a good half-

century of Chinese history. And Jia is so desperate to discover the

truth of his subject that he’s willing to employ anything and

everything, including artifice, if this will bring him any closer

to what urban renewal is the process of quickly obliterating.

 

The theme of his film — of all his features to date, in fact — is

the displacement coming from historical upheavals in China

and the various kinds of havoc they produce: physical, emotional,

intellectual, political, conceptual, cultural, economic, familial,

societal. And sometimes the style involves a certain amount of

displacement as well, such as when he cuts from a speech in late

2007 about recent changes in “24 City” before a full audience in

an auditorium to a shot of an almost empty stairway that plays

over the same speech, with one figure climbing the steps on two

successive floors.

 

Jia addresses his ambitious theme by mixing documentary and

fiction, a procedure he’s been developing in various ways

throughout his career. It’s apparent here in the uses of music as

well as in the mix of actors and nonactors, in both the mise en scène

and the editing. But of course, blatant employments of theater and

fiction, of pre-arrangement and construction, have informed

documentary filmmaking since its earliest phases. It’s never enough

simply to assert that “capturing reality” is the aim; there are always

other agendas, and teasing out those agendas is partly a matter of

discerning various stylistic decisions. When the Lumière brothers

filmed workers leaving their own factory in 1895, using a stationary

camera setup explicitly recalled in 24 City, the mode employed isn’t

simply “actuality” but also a form of surveillance. And by the time

Robert Flaherty makes Nanook of the North (1922), the mixture

of modes has become still more complicated. In the film’s first extended

sequence, Nanook the Eskimo in his boat paddles to the shore and

disembarks, performing the equivalent of a circus act in which many

clowns emerge from a tiny car as he helps to bring out each member

of his family from the boat’s concealed interior: several children, his

wife, the family dog. Documentary, in short, is a form of show business

from the very outset, something constructed as well as found.

 

So when Kevin B. Lee, in his review in Cineaste (Fall 2009, Vol.

XXXIV, No. 4) rightly calls 24 City “an oral history project transformed

into performance art,” we should acknowledge that Jia is being both

innovative and experimental in one sense and highly traditional and

commercial in another. Even if he’s being more obvious about the

arranged and/or fictional elements here than the Lumières or Flaherty

were — by utilizing four professional actors and four actual factory

workers for the eight interviews featured in this film, as well as a

cowriter, Zhai Yongming, who comes from Chengdu — he is none the

less adhering to certain conventions that are as old as the documentary

form itself. It’s important to realize, moreover, that Lu Liping, Chen

Jianbin, Joan Chen, and Zhao Tao are all recognizable as movie actors

to Chinese viewers. So the unconventional ways these actors are used

has to be weighed against the various commercial benefits derived

from their presence. In fact, although Jia started making features with

state approval only after Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and

Unknown Pleasures (2002), 24 City (2008) has been his

biggest commercial success in China to date, surpassing both The

World (2004) and Still Life (2006).

 

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.

 

It’s important to add that the performative role played by

nonactors is no less important to the film’s feeling and

design than the performances by the actors, and not

simply or necessarily because they’re always closer to

“the truth”. (Some of the formal poses of the portraits of

workers are made to seem more artificial than some of the

staged and written monologues, and the periodic fades to

black, disrupting the flow of the interviews, discourages us

from taking them as seamless documentary or fictional

wholes.) Hou Lijun, born in 1953 and interviewed on a

bus, may have more to say about displacements, family

separations, and job loss than anyone else in the film, and

her final statement, which Jia repeats as an intertitle —

“If you have something to do, you age more slowly” —  is

clearly one the key lines.

 

It’s no less important to bear in mind that part of the

financing of 24 City came from the “24 City” development

itself, much as the theme park which The World both

explores and deconstructs also helped to finance that film.

So there are multiple agendas at work here, some of them

seemingly in conflict with one another, and the desire to

experiment is tied to a kind of ideological juggling act that

has made some Chinese viewers weep during portions of

this film (reportedly, especially during the final sequence),

but has also worried some critics, Chinese and western alike,

about some of the implicit compromises and cross-purposes

involved in such an enterprise. But Jia has been a ambitious

risk-taker throughout his career, and the topics as well as the

emotions that he chooses to take on here are, perhaps by

necessity, as ambiguous and as open-ended as China itself.

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