Invisible cities: an interview with Jia Zhangke

Edmund Lee talks to the renowned Chinese filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, about his stunning new film, '24 City'

Jia Zhangke’s latest film, '24 City', chronicles the stories of workers in a giant Chengdu munitions factory that has been demolished to make way for a housing and entertainment development. It’s an experimental hybrid of fiction and non-fiction – five interviews with real factory workers are interspersed with monologues from actors, including Joan Chen ('Lust, Caution') and Zhao Tao (star of Jia’s 'The World'), and scenes of the factory’s demolition.

How did the idea of '24 City' come about?
'I’ve wanted to make a film about workers and factories for a long time. I wrote a script back in 2000 called ‘The Factory Door’, inspired by several of my high-school classmates who became factory workers before finishing high school, but lost their jobs in the mid-1990s. I didn’t film the finished script because I didn’t especially want to focus on the social aspects, the difficult lives of workers.'

Why did you decide to film in Chengdu?
'In late 2006, I read about a Chengdu factory in the news. In its heyday, this secret aviation factory, called Factory 420, used to house 30,000 workers and 100,000 of their family members. The entire site was sold to a developer, who demolished the factory and built a new apartment complex called 24 City. I was excited to come across this real-life case: it represents the gigantic – and miraculously rapid – transformation of modern China. I think it’s already a story in itself.'

Through this process, do you feel that many memories are…
'... lost. Memories were lost. That’s why when I read this news, I thought to myself: Wow, in the end, even memories had to be sacrificed. When you visit an old building, at least you can still trace your past memories. But when [a building] is torn to the ground like this, nothing is left behind.'

You mentioned that you gave up filming your original script because it was ‘too social’. Do you prefer personal stories?
'That’s right. Chinese films – or rather, literature – used to conform to the mainstream stance and ideology. But from our generation onwards, I hope that our relation to history can have a personal – and genuine – starting point. This is a stance I’ve always insisted upon.'

What was the preparation process like for '24 City'?
'As I didn’t know any of the workers, I posted a newspaper ad for a week, recruiting people to talk about their experiences living in the factory. In the year that followed, I interviewed about a hundred workers. The longest interview took five to six hours. The shortest took five minutes [laughs]. There were unsuccessful ones.'

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 nota historian writing history; I’m a film director reconstructing experiences incurred in history.'

You even have Joan Chen’s character recalling that she was once nicknamed ‘Little Flower’, because she looked like Chen in the 1978 movie, 'The Little Flower'.
'[Grinning] I wasn’t aiming to make a pseudo-documentary. To emphasise the value of imagination in the film, I found several film stars whom everybody [in China] knows, to make the public aware that this is a film comprising of both factual and fictional parts. No film can be absolutely accurate and objective in its factual account; there is inevitably some treatment processing involved.'

Your earlier films tend to focus more on the lives of individual characters, whereas in your latest films, such as 'Still Life' and '24 City', you employ many characters to talk about the story of a specific place. Has your interest shifted from the personal to the collective?
'I'd rather describe my approach as a panorama. It doesn’t mean that I’ve sacrificed the concern for the individual; a panorama consists of countless individuals, instead of an indistinguishable whole. I’m interested in the people underneath, as I think the historical grand narrative usually becomes too abstract during a time of change, burying the people’s lived experience under numbers or concepts. This approach allows me to represent the complexity of modern China.'

What was your most memorable experience during the making of this film?
'I think it’s the tiredness. I remember reading an article by an Internet critic who said that I was playing it smart this time, that I "finished my film by simply letting others sit down and talk". But this is such a huge misunderstanding. I was exhausted after every interview, because I had to enter the life of the person and relive life stories through their words.'

Read our review of '24 City'.

Author: Interview: Edmund Lee





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