24 City is the latest film by the Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Widely regarded as one of the foremost directors of the Sixth Generation movement in China, he is sometimes mistakenly thought of as being a kind of political revolutionary.
Making movies in China is not always easy. The government will censor films that are deemed overly critical of the state and many directors have been subjected to government bans for years at a time. Director Lou Ye has been banned twice for a total of 7 years. Despite the heavy hand, a group of quite brilliant people continue making films, dissident or otherwise, working without shooting permits and often with European funds. Jia Zhangke is an excellent director and fits in with Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and others as a kind of smart, fresh face in Chinese cinema, but he is less controversial than some of his compatriots.
24 City is a semi-documentary. It chronicles some of the history and current status of a place called Factory 420, which made aeronautics parts for decades until it was recently torn down and replaced by an elaborate apartment complex. Interviews with people who worked at the factory and lived in the area are combined with loosely related theatrical scenes that use trained actors. It all creates a kind of visual poem or oral history. When I hear/write “visual poem” and “oral history” I imagine political testimonies that have been so drowned in sentimentality that they’ve lost all their edge. I like 24 City, but watching it is kind of like watching monks draw complex sand designs and then seeing the wind erase them.
It’s a testament to some generational transitions in China. Young people have an entrepreneurial spirit, with strong financial and professional aspirations, contrary to their parents who would work 7 days a week in the same factory their entire lives. A woman who was the “flower of the factory” her entire youth, now spends her days playing mahjong with divorced friends. The old ways have crumbled like the factory itself, but they’ve left distinguishing marks on the present. The last interviewee wants to make a lot of money so she can buy an apartment for her parents in the new 24 City. Running a restaurant is her vision of the present, not uniforms and F-22s.
Jia won’t be banned for this film. It’s not obviously critical or political; it’s not even obviously a documentary. Complete with screen tests, Yeats poems and some engaging stories, it’s certainly for an art house crowd. But more importantly, it’s another step taken by an important filmmaker navigating some unique cultural intersections.
24 City starts playing Friday at the Lumiere Theatre for one week only. Info.