24 City (U)
Time Out rating:
Not yet rated
Time Out says
Tue Apr 27 2010Since his first film, ‘Xiao Wu’ in 1997, and with later works such as ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke has built a reputation as a leading chronicler of a changing China. The 40-year-old filmmaker from Shanxi Province is an independent voice, popular with festivals and cinemas across the globe, who works on the borders between documentary and fiction
and communicates the shifting landscapes of his country through the most personal of stories.
Jia’s new film, ‘24 City’, is a documentary of sorts. Yet that’s not a helpful tag for his invigorating collage of styles, sequences and suggestions, and the film’s great surprise is how he finds poetry and music in a subject that could easily be dry and mundane. Its focus is a formerly secret munitions factory, known as Factory 420 or the Chengfa Group, in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. The factory moved, along with its workers, from distant Shenyang in 1958 and, at the time of filming, is being demolished and rebuilt as apartments and offices.
The factory, we come to feel, is a microcosm of China and the country’s stresses, strains and movements over the past 50 years, and once this feeling becomes apparent the film takes on a relevance that makes you look for greater meaning in each of its crisp, HD images. Jia tells the story of Factory 420 through nine interviews, each of them case studies of sorts, but he adds another layer of imagination and intrigue by having four of these nine interviewees played by actors, all of them, including Joan Chen and Zhao Tao, recognisable to Chinese audiences.
And the talking heads are only part of the story. It’s the footage that Jia gives us between these interviews, informative and moving as they are, that is most captivating and illuminating: a crowd of workers singing at a company meeting; an ex-worker walking past a rusty military plane carrying her own drip; a scene of trees in bloom which, as the camera rises higher, turns out to be a painted wall in front of a building site. Add to this the central place that Jia gives to extracts from songs and poems, including two by WB Yeats, and the film takes on an operatic feel, moving between euphoria for the new and lament for the lost.
The film’s power is gradual, rather than immediate. Some of the interviews drag a little, and the mixing of real interviewees with actors causes some jarring of tone. But, that warning aside, the film should prove a winner for anyone interested in the new China and Jia’s playful approach to what makes a documentary.
Author: Dave Calhoun