24 City 二十四城记 (2008) – China
Mostly documentary, partly fiction, this work is inspiring, but its excitement with weaving themes on a grueling kind of a work ethic and a people’s lack of recognition, the pass-you-by expiration date on time, and its mixing of professional actors among real life factory hands ultimately brings much sadness. The interviews are sandwiched between a voyeur’s intrigue and a sensitivity toward politics. Although it’s all focused on a new step forward from an antiquated China, forcefully trying to forget the dirtiness from before, the exhausted folks who bear all in front of the camera are visibly hurt by their results in life. However their disposition sits with you at home, they seem to bite it all down and smile their broken grins toward us in awkward profile poses, a rigid technique in opening documentary interviews. We may not share their same experiences, but, for those few minutes we are with each in watching, the film sheds much to explore and share.
Authentic or Experimental, A Telling Documentary
Those able bodied who took to their work as told would have been forgotten by much of the world if not for Zhangke Jia making a spectacle of the documentary genre here, and those real workers took care to show us their appreciation for our having watched and listened. About those specifically employed by “Factory 420”, a military weapons “security unit” dealing with parts manufacturing during the Cold War in China’s Sichuan capital, Chengdu, “24 City” examines workers and their individual journeys through policy changes, love loss, and missed opportunity, all varied by time in brackets of decades, their labor roles and attitudes diverse and emotional. It requires some patience and much attention to get to the meat of their stories, of how they relate, but, if you let it, a quick glimpse on the history of China during a hot mess of combative turmoils will be afforded, their tales wrapped up in the likened air of a proverb or a psalm.
There has been much speculation on the film’s credibility for being considered a documentary. Jia allows for the editing of Factory 420’s demolition with that of the interviews to appear as a traditional docudrama, slow and of a PBS specials’ sort of style, a visually censored, let us play up the interests, kind of a research, but, with its mixing of the actors, only playing the roles of peoples affected by the factory, there may be some confusion. I was certainly a victim at a loss for narrative footing too. Give it a moment to sink in, and one realizes there is much to dissect and cipher from Jia using two sides to play his film. Please give it thought; it’s worth it.
Ashamedly, this was my first Zhangke Jia picture show. Me anticipating the eventual March release of A Touch of Sin (2013) on Blu-ray (In Texas I still cannot see it), I wanted to go back and watch his documentary work before venturing into the fictional. I did not know of the performances, the ‘fake’ interviewees, nor did I know he was using regular actors from previous pictures, what with Tao Zhao and Joan Chen, who is also known for her role as Jocelyn Packard in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (I’m embarrassed I could not detect it earlier). Now though, after the shock has settled, you’ll see of a bigger narrative.
Jia puts forward his ensemble of actors not to mock or discredit the historical significance of Chengdu and the factory, but to show a quasi respect for the past with supplementary gravitas provided by stagehands. It’s like a son too afraid of telling his father he loves him for fear of seeming inadequate, a much played upon trope in film, and Jia, perhaps, is needing to say: I appreciate you Chengdu, so much so I’ve hired actors to prove it. It’s an effort to show a merging of two distinct generations, the workers & the creatives, together, albeit different.
Of the film’s theme and direction, Jia puts the subjects up close for traditional framing, and then he takes the cameras further back, the subjects cut to appear talking to him, not us, as if we’re only peaking in for the interviews.
The design, from the choice in going digital, although it may seem like film, much of the scenes temporarily fading out to black as of a celluloid roll already completed, the audio continuing throughout, and its cinematography, the careful pans and cranes to the side and forward, is haunting, desperate even for your sympathy. Jia, although kind of playing us for fools from start to finish, is also eager for us to approve of the story in Chengdu.
I enjoy listening to these people, real or not. Their tales are enlightening, and I think there’s some joy to come of watching “24 City”. If you like documentaries, or meta/post modern materials, where there’s an obvious awareness to techniques in creation, then this is for you.