A style in flux can produce the most interesting, though not necessarily the most complete work. Jia Zhangke's recent documentary forays—Dong and Useless—seemed to point towards the versatile, contemplative neo-realism of Still Life. But 24 City, his newest film, points in a more dynamic, and perhaps yet unfulfilled direction.
As befits a filmmaker who always looked for the documentary and the fictive in his works, Jia is moving towards a place where the mature result may be an indistinguishable hybrid. Like Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini before him—to name but a few—Jia embraces both impulses instantly, and like those before him, this hybrid of the times is like nothing we've ever seen before. Its method strange and its deeper motivations opaque, the sense is of a work in progress, an experiment towards a naturally hybrid cinema of modern China.
We may not be there yet—24 City moves slowly, digressively, like a fascinating but ungainly run-on sentence—but diverse is its human scope, and on the conceptual level it tries something very interesting to unite the human with the social, economic, and historical.
The film is a documentary on the development of factory 420 from the 1950s to the present day, where it is now being torn down to build a new apartment complex. Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu's camera, which trawls slowly through the real spaces around the Chengdu and the factory itself, is, like much of Jia's documentary cinematography, influenced by the 1950s work of Resnais and Antonioni. We navigate fluidly through space, exploring the subject, be it a metalwork station or an empty office building, with a briefness that expresses a spatial reality and lyrical sentiment.
But where the film truly begins to move into new realms, aside from punctuating sections with quotes of poetry, ancient and modern, as well as collage-like inserts of personal documentation, is when all this active space around Chengdu is grounded by interviews with factory employees and residents spanning its history. The catch is that of the nine interviews, four are played by actors, including Joan Chen and Jia's regular actress, Zhao Tao, who semi-seamlessly integrate into the fifty-year span of the area's life, from its production of military goods to that of refrigerators, from tales of brawls with local residents to migration from Shanghai and other parts of Chin.
The human story of industrial and economic change continues all the way through 2008 when Zhao, playing a woman whose job is to purchase luxery goods abroad for lazy, rich Chinese women, testifies that she aspires to make piles of money to move her parents, one of whom works at a factory, not out of Chengdu but rather out of their factory work and into the new "24 City" apartments, where 420 once stood. While the evolution of the factory—and of modern China has seen through this factory—is suggest slowly, idiosyncratically, and beautifully by the film's camera, the method of the interviews is more ambiguous.
Far more modest than the independent camera work—which skews towards the monumental—the revelations of the interviews are resolutely human and small. That Jia has decided to fictionalize a part of these, and especially two female interviewees, points interestingly towards a potential inaccessibility to certain viewpoints—that of women, that of younger Chinese—which the film has to guess at, or predict. Even though their stories are perhaps the film's saddest, there is something reassuring in that they are faked. It shows a gap, perhaps even an admission to a gap, in the film's understanding of the factory, of the city, of China, of the people, and an openness, a possibility, for the present, and for the future.