Friday, June 5, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Jia Zhang-ke, "24 City" (2008)

24 City (Er shi si cheng ji). 2008. Directed by Jia Zhang-ke. Written by Jia Zhang-ke and Zhai Yongming. Produced by Jia Zhang-ke, Shozo Ichiyama, and Wang Hong. Cinematography by Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu. Edited by Lin Xudong, Kong Jinlai, and Li Haiyang. Music by Yoshihiro Hanno and Lim Giong. Art direction by Liu Qiang and Chen Rongchao. Sound design by Zhang Yang. Costume design by Zhao Tong.

Cast: Joan Chen (Gu Minhua), Lu Liping (Hao Dali), Zhao Tao (Su Na), Chen Jianbin (Zhao Gang).

Jia Zhang-ke's magisterial, mesmerizing documentary/fiction hybrid, 24 City, opens today in New York at the IFC Center. Surely one of the best films of the year, it's scheduled to play for just a week, so get thee to the theater immediately. The proximity of this film's release to the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising may or may not be coincidental, but the occasion certainly provides much food for thought on the massive changes that have occurred in China since then. (For a great assessment of the ongoing legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests, check out this post on Edwin Mak's blog.)

Below is a (slightly modified) review of 24 City that I wrote when it screened at last year's New York Film Festival:

Perhaps the most famous of cinema pioneers the Lumière Brothers’ works is “Workers Leaving the Factory,” a 50-second film which consists of a static shot of what its title describes. This ancestral cinematic image is echoed by several shots of Jia Zhang-ke’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful, documentary/fiction hybrid, 24 City. The film focuses on 420 Factory in Chengdu, Sichuan province, a former military munitions plant which is about to be torn down and moved to another area to make way for an ultramodern housing complex known as “24 City,” a name which has a vaguely Alphaville-esque, sci-fi tinge to it.

24 City is structured as a series of nine monologues, five of which are spoken by actual workers in the factory, and four of which are delivered by actors, including a trio of great actresses – Lu Liping, Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao, representing three generations of Chinese history. The experiences of Chinese women are very prominent in this film, much more so than in Jia’s previous work, thanks to the influence of Jia’s co-screenwriter, female poet Zhai Yongming, a native of Chengdu. This is Jia’s densest and most complex film to date, encompassing reality and fiction, and peppered with quotations from Chinese poetry and William Butler Yeats. Music, especially, plays a key role: excerpts of the Internationale play on the soundtrack, workers in the film sing both patriotic anthems and romantic pop songs, and a Chinese opera troupe (led by Joan Chen) performs within the crumbling walls of the factory.

24 City was originally conceived by Jia as a straight documentary; however, the film slowly transformed into a rich collage of stories and physical memorabilia (worker ID cards, photographs, letters) that document the changes across fifty years of Chinese history, refracted through the collective consciousness of this factory. “As far as I’m concerned, history is always a blend of facts and imagination,” Jia says in the film’s press notes. This could refer to both Maoist policies and propaganda that shaped the fortunes of this factory and to the nature of Jia’s project. Jia keeps his focus on individual human stories, a riposte to the Chinese government’s insistence on requiring workers to constantly take it on the chin for the good of society, to be displaced and replaced at will, to always be on time and never miss a day, and never protest or complain.

Far from the vapid, simpleminded analyses of China offered by most American mainstream media, Jia explores these issues with poetry and melancholic beauty. Construction and factory life have surely never been given more vivid and lyrical form than here. Although the film has its share of poignant moments, Jia manages to inject a fair amount of humor in this scenario, one example being a particularly cheeky meta-cinematic reference: Joan Chen’s character, Little Flower, is a “factory beauty” famed for her uncanny resemblance to … Joan Chen.

24 City cements Jia’s status as perhaps the most vital and poetic chronicler of present-day China, and the economic and physical changes wrought by this country’s rapid upward mobility. “I see movies as a tool to record memory,” Jia told me last year during an interview I conducted with him at last year’s New York Film Festival, after a press screening of his previous film Useless. His latest film fulfills this stated aim, and then some. The stunning, hyper-real digital images provided by cinematographers Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu bring the history and the architecture of this factory into nearly three-dimensionally vivid focus. 24 City is initially challenging and unsettling, due to the unusual nature of his project, but Jia, as always, richly rewards the viewer’s patience, and in the final shots that cap Zhao Tao’s tour de force performance (what a treasure this actress is!), the film culminates with a stunning visual epiphany.

Click here for the schedule of screenings at the IFC Center.

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