Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke is no stranger to supremely -- almost perversely -- challenging works, from his drama The World (2004), a single feature-length narrative distillation of 21st century China's position in the global community, to his critically praised Platform (2000), which allegorically dramatizes China's transition from Maoist Communism to liberalized economic superpower. Like its predecessors, the experimental 24 City (2008) takes enormous gambles with form and content, and feels equally successful -- dazzlingly so. On every level, it represents a monumental achievement.
24 City tells of the blue-collar workers of Chengdu, China, employed for decades by a manufacturing plant known as Factory 420. The government originally designed the facility for aviation manufacturing during the Korean War, but later converted it to the creation of domestic products such as refrigerators. Jia shot the film at a pivotal, transitional point, when the factory faced permanent closure and the government planned to replace it with a commercial development including an eight-screen multiplex cinema. The form here feels wildly eccentric: in lieu of a straightforward feature or documentary, Jia mixes the two -- he intercuts first-person interviews with plant workers, and first-person interviews that feature actors playing plant workers.
That mixture of the fictional and nonfictional represents the first of two major gambles in the film; in lesser hands, it could easily risk losing credibility, especially for audience members who recognize actors such as the brilliant Joan Chen (Heaven & Earth) amid the rest of the cast. The second gamble lies in Jia's stubborn resistance to more overtly cinematic material than simple headshots and medium shots of his participants speaking.
As a measure of Jia's genius, the film towers above these potential weaknesses. A fraction of the participants may be actors, but we quickly forget this fact; especially in retrospect, the deeply intimate, imagistic, and emotionally open monologues blend together into a tight, cohesive oral history. And if the writer-director fabricated a few of the details or individual accounts, it's no matter, for the fictional and nonfictional monologues share a consistent emotional texture and tone. The point here seems to cut much deeper than which individual accounts really happened: we gain an overall impression of the sorts of experiences that Factory 420 workers endured, and that emotional impression (much more than the specific details) is what retains validity. The film's second major gamble -- its extreme emphasis on first-person interviews -- scarcely matters given the sheer dramatic power of the monologues, which pull us in and hook us, from one woman's tale of permanently losing her son amid a boat trip to Chengdu, to another's poignant reflections on her lengthy, decades-long geographical estrangements from beloved grandparents thanks to her work in the Chengdu factory.
As inJia's prior works, 24 City's more immediate level of reality signifies and provides insight into much broader sociopolitical concerns -- namely the fact that so many men and woman gave their hearts, minds, and the better part of their lives to industrial service under a Communist regime, only to watch the government cut those contributions out from under them in favor of a move toward a free-market economy and enhanced commercialization. Thus, a sense of profound sadness runs throughout the picture -- a sadness captured in what may be the film's most potent image: that of a Chengdu worker sitting alone amid the rooms of the abandoned and semi-dilapidated factory, with no place to go, nothing more to do, and the better part of his life behind him.