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24 City - Movie Review of 24 City - Er shi si cheng ji - 2008

Blending Documentary and Dramatic Elements

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

By

Beijing-based director Jia Zhangke uses documentary and narrative storytelling to create 24 City, an extraordinary chronicling of how the deconstruction of an aviation factory in the city of Chengdu (Sichuan Province, China) effected the lives of some 30,000 dedicated workers to whom the factory was not just a job, but a way of life.

The Impact of Collective Storytelling

In 24 City, Jia interviews five of the factory’s actual workers who recount key stories about their relationship to the plant, their jobs and their colleagues, and he uses the stories he collected from 130 other workers to create four fictionalized composite characters, one of whom--Little Flower, the factory spinster--is brilliantly played by Joan Chen.

The individual characters--the real workers and those who are fictitious--are profoundly moving. All of the subjects are highly introspective and melancholic--some of them are near tears--as they speak of past experiences that bind them emotionally and materially to the plant. Their lives, livelihoods and self esteem were completely wrapped up with the factory. And they took pride in their work, their contribution.

There was a time when this factory’s employees' work was considered so essential, they were given extra rations of meat each month, and bonus pay for secrecy about their work projects. One man describes how he learned to make his own tools when he arrived at the factory so many years ago, and how his boss instructed him to value everything he used. And, a women recounts a tragic event that occurred while she and her family were traveling to Chengdu to begin their employment at the factory, which was then a top secret asset for China‘s military establishment.

Enhancing Stories Through Details

Director Jia brings each personal story into sharper focus by using film images that reveal mundanely intimate moments in the tellers’ lives--one middle age man plays a solo game of basketball in an empty playground while school children parade by him, several women rehearse a traditional Chinese opera while others sit at square tables playing mahjong, a young girl who roller skates in circles says both of her parents work at the plant but she’s never been inside it.

We see personal artifacts, too--a young man’s passbook, a neatly made bed, a family photograph, makeup, a tea cup..

Footage of personal moments and items are interspersed with shots of the factory being emptied--we see huge machines placed on flatbed trucks and hauled away, and several times we witness cadres of workers walking out of the plant through its front gate, passing beneath huge red Chinese characters that indicate the factory name--and are removed one by one to be replaced with the name of a new luxury apartment complex that will be built in its place. A group of men pull wiring from the walls, others remove tiles from the roof. A security guard walks through debris.

The film’s pacing is slow and its mood is contemplative. Some of the images are tagged with aphorisms or poems. The effect is impressionistic and stunning. After each interview, the subject poses solo or in a group for a cinematic portrait that’s shot like a still with the camera holding for several minutes on subjects who look directly into the lens and move minimally. These images, delivered in silence, are absolutely haunting.

Chronicling Change In China

Director Jia, who’s previously worked to great acclaim in both documentary and narrative genres, gives us a unique look at China’s very complex changing cultural circumstances. His purpose isn’t political polemic, but he seeks to stimulate social awareness and debate about what is to become of ordinary citizens as China transitions from a strictly socialist, highly regulated and very traditional society into one that embraces modernity and greater individual freedoms. His sympathies are clearly with the workers who’ve been cast aside in the name of progress. And this brilliant film will enlist your sympathies, too.

Important Thematic Concerns

Jia’s thematic concerns are echoed in three recent documentaries made by Western filmmakers. In Young and Restless in China, the American director Susan Williams follows several twenty and thirty-something Chinese citizens who’re engaged in pursuing lifestyle goals that might easily be characterized as “the American dream with a Chinese twist.” Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang’s Up The Yangtzeis about employment-seeking youths who sign on as crew aboard a tourist ship cruising near Three Gorges Dam (which somewhat symbolic of changing China), where they see how rising waters are displacing people from their homes and livelihoods. In the fascinating and horrifying Manufactured Landscapes Jennifer Baichwal, also a Canadian, follows famed photographer Edward Burtynsky as he travels through China documenting the ongoing transformation of farmlands and natural landscapes into industrial wastelands.

Of this quartet of films, both Jia’s 24 City and Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes stand out as cinematic masterpieces, but Jia’s is the one that reflects the Chinese perspective, providing an insiders point of view and sensibility. It is a must see!

Film Details

  • Release Date: U.S. Theatrical in 2009; currently on the festival circuit
  • Parents Guide: Content advisory for parents
  • Runtime: 112 mins
  • Country: China/Hong Kong/Japan
  • Language: Mandarin
  • Filming Locations: Chengdu, China
  • Distribution: Cinema Guild

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