He Remembers Forgotten Beauty
Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City/Er shi si cheng ji typifies the independent maverick’s deadpan yet committed work. Officially banned in his homeland though circulated on pirate DVDs, his earlier, 1997-2002 films depicted the rural dreariness of China on the cusp of and after the Cultural Revolution. Internationally produced, applauded by some critics, and presented at festivals -- this is his third New York Film Festival, plus one New Directors/New Films -- they were commercially unviable abroad. It is unlikely the public will flock to this one, either, which is too bad, because it’s a fond, quietly ironic look at the past and the present facing the global problem of individual obsolescence and urban uprooting.
Social concerns aside, like the body of his output -- as usual, he co-writes -- it is filmically valuable for his (as always) blurring the lines between “fact” and “fiction,” documentary and story, non-actors and professionals. There are printed snatches from serious poetry and from popular song, but Lord Byron’s letter to his publisher might well have been included, to the effect that “there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.”
Returning intermittently to the masses of uniformly shirted workers entering and leaving the precinct’s gate, and lastly to welders dismantling the metal letters over that gate and to the demolition of the whole complex, this non-fiction fiction revolves around the life and the lives of Factory 420, originally Xindu Machinery. Once employing thousands, inland to be far from Japan’s reach, in the manufacture of airplane parts, it had boomed during the conflict in Korea and afterwards. Profits shrunk, its plant outmoded and its products unreliable, its land is transferred on the last days of 2007, to be the site of high-end high-rise condo complex 24 City, named from a poem.
Industrial and street traffic noise a constant, among protracted human silences or single “interviewees” there are intercuts of salvage and demolition, of molten ingots and moldy walls, short street scenes, a seedy company basketball court, two forlorn war memorial jet fighters, a hospital room, a third grader roller skating on a rooftop, and incongruous fields of yellow flowers.
This is Sichuan’s “little Beijing,” Chengdu City of two million souls, walled Shu Han dynasty capital -- and epicenter of the recent earthquake, memorialized by Jia at the Cannes Festival. In a way, however, it is not Chengdu City. As a second-generation former assistant manager observes, this was in fact a company town “kind of world apart” where sons followed fathers into the workplace, where the children had their own schools and were “unified” and so always won turf fights against disparate outside kids.
Ruminations cut by black seconds of camera- or sitter-shift calling documentary attention to film-as-film, they recount their lives, those from here and those brought in from Shanghai and elsewhere for the halcyon war-effort days. On a city bus and in clacking mah-jongg parlors or sing-alongs for seniors, under high ceilings in derelict warehouses and in front of home kitchens, telling personal tales of twenty, thirty, forty years on the job, actors become real people and real people become actors.
A village mother loses her child on the terrifying riverboat trip here, another is laid off and sells illegal flowers before becoming a home seamstress. “Little Flower” (Joan Chen) -- no one calls her Gu Minha anymore -- still performs costumed folk opera and muses on her real and rumored loves which never panned out, sad for herself and for the numbers of friends now divorced.
Among them is some sense of nostalgia for the old days in this China which barges into modernity with state controls, where “cases of property seizure or destruction [are] a very common complaint.”
Progress unstoppable, in the mass at least, television anchorman Zhao Gang has a 24 City mock-up explained to him by a crisp efficient hostess and in the ultra-modern plasticity of his apartment recalls his student horror of assembly-line drudgery. Style-obsessed “shopper” in Hong Kong for lazy rich ladies, Su Na (Tao Zhao) simpers in a yellow Beetle but wants big money, a big car and a big apartment in what is rising from what was Factory 420.
Before a concluding pan of the soulless and sunless city, this contemporary young lady reveals her aversion to study and to her mother’s factory labor, and her living with three successive boyfriends and refusal to go to the parental home. But, losing her key, she does return to her folks, and to a childhood bed. Below her acquisitive surface, stirs a human heart.
Like the wrecker’s ball, the future steamrolls all in its path. Below Jia’s artful impassive recording, stirs the beat of what is lost in the trade-off.
(Released by MK2 Diffusion; not rated by MPAA.)