Jia Zhiang-keâ€™s style, temperament, and circumstances uniquely suit him to chronicle his subject: turn-of-the-century China. His early films focused on youth, dislocated between the reality of, the backwater areas where they live, and the beckoning promise of an urbanized â€œmodernityâ€ of their dreams. More recently, he set The World among young workers in an urban theme park consisting of of scaled-down versions of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower : faux cosmopolitanism as a part daily life. If Godard famously examined the children of Marx and Coca Cola, Jiaâ€™s subjects are offspring of Mao and Microsoft.
His newest, 24 City, is framedâ€”at least for a whileâ€”as a documentary reporting the transformation of a Cold-War-vintage urban weapons factoryâ€”on what has become prime real estateâ€”into â€œ24 City,â€ a five-star residential and resort complex. The movie seems to telegraph Its formula in early sequences that interview some of the the factoryâ€™s first workers: earnest, idealistic, stoic, and hard-working, in contrast to later subjects who seem cheerfully crass and unapologetically materialistic. But Jia is as much trickster as chronicler, and deftly mixes faux and â€œrealâ€ footage to subvert that facile formula.
The factory opened in the late 1950s, and an early interviewee, a self-assured efficient-seeming technocrat, recounts a working life of commitment and diligence, patriotically serving nation and factory. As hard as he works, though, he describes himself as a piker next to his early mentor, who worked harder and used equipment more resourcefully, ingeniously finding ways to use worn tools lesser workers would long ago have discarded as beyond useability. The mentor himself then appears to confirm this, smiling a bit diffidently as he recounts never missing a day of work– holidays and Sundays includedâ€”and working occasional nights as well. And he confirms, and even embellishes the accounts of re-using worn equipment until it brings to mind the story in The Searchers: ordinary man rides a horse until itâ€™s dead; a Comanche gets on that horse, rides it for 20 miles, then eats it.
Later subjects recount the factoryâ€™s evolving fortunes: busily producing weapons for the Korean War, scarcely less busy for Vietnam, and then a gradual decline. Workers were uprooted during waves of urbanization and industrialization, briefly reversed by the Cultural Revolution and then resuming and accelerating. One woman describes being laid off 15 years ago, at age 41, still barely comprehending the circumstances: she did her job well, had done nothing wrong, and for the rest of her working life struggled with make-shift work on the fringes of criminality, eventually retiring without ever finding another suitable job. The most poignantâ€”and possibly the last genuineâ€”reminiscence is of a motherâ€™s boat trip to a new factory: at one stop she was separated from her 3-year-old child, swept away from him by the re-boarding crowd, and tearfully recalls watching helplessly as the city and the unseen child recede as the boat resumed its journey.
And then Jia muddies the picture with professional actors adding their synthesized interview accounts to the â€œhistoricalâ€ mosaic. The first is Joan Chen, subtly mugging and posturing, as a â€œcharacterâ€ nicknamed for her resemblance to a character played by Joan Chen in a popular movie; the sequence ends with a clip of the character watching â€œJoan Chenâ€ as that movie plays on TV. Itâ€™s no less self-conscious than Julia Roberts as herself in The Player, or as a character exploiting her resemblance to Roberts in Oceans 12.
Another actor describes a working life wholly confined to the factoryâ€™s self-enclosed world, with its own school, cinema, swimming pool, and â€”the topperâ€“a factory-produced soft drink supplied to workers in the summer. Because factory children only encountered local children in fights, one bicycle excursion away from the factory took an ominous turn when he was captured by the townies; all ended well, though when they spared himâ€”and his bicycleâ€”because Chou En-Lai had just died. The apotheosis of these packaged histories is the final sequence, a young woman who disappointed her parents by not going to university but makes a fine living going to Hong Kong to buy the latest in consumer goods for rich women too busy or lazy to do it for themselves. She recalls how eager she had been to leave her working class home and roots. But then, she says, her life was transformed when she went to her motherâ€™s factory for the first time and saw the conditions: deafening noise and workers indistinguishable in their uniforms and headgear. This made her understand what her parents had done for her, and led her, she reports tearily, to a new goal in life: to accumulate enough money to buy her parents a luxury apartment in the 24 City complex. She now knows she can do this, she says solemnly, because she is the â€œdaughter of a worker.â€ The tears are as contrived as the story: pat, mechanical, on cueâ€”a polar opposite to the story of the mother separated from her child.
Or perhaps not. Interspersed with the interviews are images of the factory being depopulated, dismantled, and demolished. Those sequences are certainly â€œrealâ€ by any standard, but theyâ€™re also exhibits from Rust Belt Decline 101 that could almost come from Michael Mooreâ€™s Flint, Michigan. And we see precious little of the 24 City that replaces the factory. Likewise, the (non-actor) factory workersâ€™ reminiscences on one level are authentic bits of oral history, lives distilled by memories, but at least some of them could double as pieces of folklore, tall tales about a mythic past. Much the same could be said of the later sequences of professional actors impersonating people reminiscing. We know we canâ€™t trust those accounts, and the film has, as it were, a series of unreliable narrators. So what do we make of any of it ? Jia keeps a cryptic distance, observing, but avoiding easy judgments or pat conclusions, and mistrusting narratives or images that lead to destinations too emotionally cathartic or clarifying; altogether an elegant way to remind us how complex and dynamic a subject he is taking on.
Â© 2009 David Coursen
24 City plays at Seattle’s NWFF May 8-14.Â Find showtimes here.