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24 City

The Industrial Surreal


Moving from the ostensibly realist fictional worlds of Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures to the semi-documentative dimensions of Still Life and 24 City, Jia Zhangke, who was born in 1970, is a filmmaker who wants to chronicle a nation in transition, a country that has moved from rural to urban in less than a generation. A BBC report notes, “City dwellers in China now outnumber rural dwellers for the first time as more people seek better economic opportunities. In 2011 alone 21 million people moved to the cities.” When asked about the choice of subject for 24 City, Jia said: “In late 2006, I read about a Chengdu factory in the news. In its heyday, this secret aviation factory, called Factory 420, used to house 30,000 workers, and 100, 000 of their family members. The entire site was sold to a developer, who demolished the factory and built a new apartment complex called 24 city. I was excited to come across this real-life case: it represents the gigantic – and miraculously rapid – transformation of modern China.” (Time Out) But Jia is more a chronicler of emotional states than a surveyor of broad historical strokes, and so here in 24 City though the subject takes its name from the development project, and the film focuses upon those who worked in a state-owned factory over three generations, the emphasis lies in searching out the specifics of feeling.

There are a number of great documentaries that assume any subject the filmmaker tells must come through the people whom they film, and whether it is Shoah, Grizzly Man, Chronicle of a Summer, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, or The Fog of War, the work possesses a revelatory dimension as psychological exposure. When in 24 City one woman talks about her grandmother she cannot hold back the emotion. Hou Lijun talks of going to Chengdu with her mother as a very young girl, and it was fourteen years before she returned with her mum to their home town of Shenyang in 1972. On returning, her grandparents were overcome with emotion when they arrived, and overcome again when they left, with her grandfather crying as the train pulled away while her mother managing to retain her composure. Her grandmother promised that one day she would come to Chengdu and visit them, and did so in the mid-eighties. She died a year or two after the visit, and at this moment Hou Lijun cannot quite retain her own composure as she talks of her granny who passed away at the age of 86. Jia discreetly cuts before picking up her story again. The story is never only told, it is also extracted, removed from a person’s emotional memory for the purposes of a director’ socio-political exploration. Such enquiry demands a certain type of sensitivity quite at odds with the often insensitivity required by an investigative style where the documentary subject is not entitled to withhold their truths but is morally expected to reveal them. When John Pilger interrogates Alan Clark on TV over East Timor, Erroll Morris questions MacNamara in The Fog of War, or Claude Lanzmann covertly interviews a former Nazi officer in Shoah, the director is entitled to bludgeon the interviewee with tough questions.

“All questioning is forcible intrusion. When used as an instrument of power it is like a knife cutting into the flesh of the victim. The questioner knows what there is to find, but he wants actually to touch it and bring it to light.” This is Elias Canetti talking about questions and answers in Crowds and Power, adding “He [the interrogator] sets to work on the internal organs with the sureness of a surgeon. But he is a special kind of surgeon, one who keeps the victim alive in order to find out more about him, and instead of anaesthetizing, deliberately stimulates pain in certain organs in order to find out what he wants to know about the rest of the body.” However there is the precision blow of the tough question practised in the investigative documentary, and the more subtle and empathic feeling evident when the documentarist works with a dimension of the emotionally revelatory. In the first instance the documentarist interrogates the subject; in the latter the documentary filmmaker enquires. Though Jia might not be happy with the situation in China, and with the exploitation of the workers, what interests him more is the emotional weave of lives hardened by work, but softened by feeling. When one ex-worker talks of his time working in Chengdu with a younger former colleague, He Xikun, he says if he took a day off then he would work nights. “I even worked through New Year and on Sundays.”  When the colleagues reunite after years apart, it is another emotional moment.

If Manchester was once called the engine room of the empire, Chengdu was clearly one of the pistons firing on all cylinders in modern China. But at what price, and with what results? As the old munitions factory gets turned into luxury apartments, the older generation seems to have worked for the consumer goods and luxuries the younger generation can afford, and who also, in certain instances, have the opportunity to eschew the arduous labour of their elders. One young man, Zhao Gang, talks of the piece work he was offered and could see that he might be assembling small parts for the rest of his life and the sixteen year old chose to quit and become a student. Another young woman of a similar age, Su Na (actually played by actress Zhao Tao), is introduced to us as a nouveau riche success story, but as she wanders around the disused factory, in her flowing brown trouser skirt and white jumper, the film asks her about her parents and she becomes emotional as she describes visiting her mother one day at work. Though now Su Na makes a comfortable living buying clothes in Hong Kong and selling them to the rich and wealthy bored women living in Chengdu, she describes her mother’s working conditions and is moved to tears. Afterwards she insists, “I want to buy an apartment in 24 city for my parents”. She knows that she can do it: after all, she says, she is the daughter of a worker.

Is this the daughter’s false consciousness as she determines to buy her parents a flat in the very building that they once worked, and will do so by buying and selling clothes to the lazily rich? In an essay called ‘The Tradition of the Victim’, Brian Winston quotes documentarist Harry Watt saying how he would sometimes trick his subjects. “Being film people, we’d take advantage. We used to go to sweet vicars living in a twenty-room house and with a congregation of ten mostly old women. And I’d say, ‘what a beautiful house and beautiful church. May I photograph? Of course I was showing that he was living in this enormous house and having only ten parishioners.” Here the purpose is to convince the subject he wants to film beauty all the better to expose it as luxury. Is this the same with Su Na, as we see her drive around in her pale, new Volkswagon beetle, a picture of taste against a backdrop of industry? One thinks not, for the tears Su Na offers are as likely to move us as they move her (no matter their fictional dimension through the part being played by an actress), with Jia perhaps wondering whether Su Na is a little too close to the people she hopes to get rich off, but at least capable of a strong emotional link with her parents’ tough lives. Just as it seems Jia has made a film that wants to enquire into his subjects’ personal histories, so he has also made a film that wants to withhold easy judgement.

This question of judgement is often vital to filmmakers whose purpose is to interrogate rather than enquire, and it would be facile to propose that filmmakers should be as fair-minded as Zhangke is here in situations that demand a forcefulness of enquiry. When in The Sorrow and the Pity Marcel Ophuls questions those involved in the Collaboration in France during WWII, or Errol Morris asks his eponymous subject in Mr Death why he denies the existence of the Holocaust, the need for tough questions is at a certain point more important than the desire to allow the subject personal expression. Both Ophuls and Morris are significant enough documentarists to work with the subtlety of questioning for the subjects to hang themselves by their own rope, but the directors have happily built the scaffold.

No such execution equipment is in place in 24 City, with the people Jia interviews often having a long life of torturous travail, brought out less however by the workers themselves than by their children. It is Su Na in her pity and Zhao Gang in his boredom who indicate how hard the work must have been, more than what the workers themselves say. This isn’t only because the older characters might not want to talk about the work; more that Jia wants them to talk about their feelings, often finding methods by which to access them. When one of the characters goes to meet his older, retired friend, it’s very much a reunion: they haven’t seen each other in years, and the moment is inevitably moving. However the film’s sensitivity resides more often in the sensitivity of what we must assume are the questions Zhangke’s film asks (a film with a script co-written by a Chengdu poet) even though he remains invisible throughout, and where the questions asked are removed and the answers left in all their vulnerability. This is enquiry as gentle coaxing, with the documentarist’s purpose less to ask questions, than create the space for people to wonder about their own lives. In Michael Apted’s famous series of films, 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up etc. it is often the space Apted creates by virtue of interviewing people every seven years about their lives more than the often blunt and even crude questions he sometimes asks, and that we sometimes hear, that creates the insightful. Apted’s ongoing document is often revelatory, but we don’t feel a great sensitivity behind the camera. Jia takes the unfolding rhythms of his fiction work and applies them here too. If in Pickpocket and Unknown Pleasures the emphasis is on observation more than revelation, watching a character’s actions rather than pushing them towards personal exposure, the sensibility behind each approach is similar.  Jia likes to give people room; whether to manoeuvre or ruminate, and here, on occasion, both. One character we see cycling through the streets; Su Na we get to see in various locations.

Generally in documentary films the people inhabiting them are called subjects, while in fiction films they’re called characters. Usually professional actors play characters; subjects usually themselves. But what is it to be a documentary subject, someone who can’t hide behind a character, but must face the camera under the auspices of their own personality? What is the subject subjected to? The vicar in Harry Watts’ film was a subject of relative ridicule as Watt wanted to utilise him not because he had a beautiful house, but a wastefully large one. The subject saw himself one way; the filmmaker another. He remained himself but the self shown on screen wasn’t quite the one he projected. If certain filmmakers might be reluctant to make a politically-oriented documentary, this won’t be due to political indifference, but empathic concern. If a subject allows himself to be filmed; is it a little unfair if within the exposure of their own personality, another version of it is ‘created’ by the filmmaker for the director’s own ends? Jia here manages to make a political work without compromising any of the subjects that he films. Few will come away from 24 City oblivious to the hardship of people’s lives in the recent past, and the creation of a materialist elite in recent years, but nobody is undermined in the process of this statement.

At the same time, 24 City does absorb characters into the film, with several of those interviewed professional actors playing fictional roles, but with the film dissolving the line between those who are relating the facts of their own life, and others fictionally playing a part. Joan (The Last Emperor) Chen here plays a character who reminisces about her time working in the factory as a young woman and a great beauty, but there is little in the film itself that would lead us to assume a famous actress takes on the role of a factory worker. This isn’t like Touching the Void, where there are interviews with those who suffered a mountaineering ordeal and others playing the subjects in scenes of reenactment as a clear line is drawn between subject and character. Jia instead wants to create indeterminacy in our assumptions, but integrity in the filming of the interviews. As Kevin B. Lee says, “For all the fictional intervention, Jia insists on filming each oral testimony with a singular integrity. There are no flashback re-enactments, not even cutaways to symbolic  imagery; each interview is presented virtually intact, save for occasional cuts to black that function like stanza or paragraph breaks.” (Keyframe)

Whether it is Chen playing a fictional version of someone who was named after the character Chen herself now enacts, or Lu Li Ping as a woman who abandoned her three year old son, the film doesn’t easily allow the viewer to draw distinctions between the real and the fictional, even if the film plays nevertheless with metafictional elements as Lee notes. Though Chen is internationally best known for her part in The Last Emperor, she became famous in China first as Little Flower in a film of that title. Here Chen plays a fictional factory worker who was given that very nickname, as she reenacts someone who became known in the factory for looking like a young Joan Chen, and now the character is being played by an older Joan Chen.

It may be the case that many in China and some viewers internationally will recognize the actors playing fictional roles, but that isn’t the same as saying that Jia demarcates between the two; more that the audience does. The role of Su Na is played by Zhao Tao, who is the wife and muse of the director, appearing in eight of his films. Zhao Tao looks out of place in her car and her clothes amidst the industrial town, but is it the actress who is at odds with the environment, or is Jia intrigued by the idea of a star who happens to be his own regular actor appearing as someone who is something of a star in her own life and milieu? Su Na looks like a woman who would like to be Zhao Tao, just as the character playing Chen formerly resembled Little Flower. As Chen’s character reflects on her past as a Chen lookalike, Su Na anticipates her future as someone who could become a star: after all, isn’t she the spitting image of Zhao Tao?

Such an approach suggests the film is as much a Borgesian identity labyrinth as a film about the changes that have taken place in China in recent years, but maybe that isn’t entirely inappropriate. When Jia was asked about the surreal elements in his earlier Still Life, about the Three Gorges dam, he replied, “I initially thought I wanted to be very realistic, but I couldn’t ignore the surreal aspects of the Three Gorges landscape. I had to use fantastical elements, because without them I wouldn’t have been able to adequately express the utter strangeness of our contemporary reality.” (Film Comment) Many of the changes between one generation and the next possess this dimension of the existentially surreal, with the gap between the parents and the children pronounced. Though Lee wonders whether Jia’s choice to end his film on Su Na’s tearful remarks, and her comment concerning her parents’ hard graft, was an attempt to illustrate that the sacrifices the older generation made gave birth to the ambitions of the younger one, we could as easily see it as an example of the economic miracle as a yawning gap between two generations. Modern China isn’t only a social experiment of Communist principles within capitalist practises; it is also an experiment in personal identity, with its one child policy as only-child psychology. If an only-child is often seen as spoilt and self-centred, how might that impact on a nation that is socio-specifically made up of only children?

When Su-Na says she wants to succeed so that her parents can have a better life in their old age, this is an empathic wish to improve her parents’ lot, but also to improve her own as she becomes another go-getter in a country where parents are forced to put all their eggs in the one basket. Su Na’s remarks might be deeply felt, but they are also visually contained: Jia Zhangke has shown her as an example of the Chinese nouveau riche. There is perhaps something a little surreal in the director following Su Na around this industrially vivid town in her fancy attire and fancy car, and then taking her in her nice clothes to the place where the dress sense had been so basic that she couldn’t even initially recognize her mum. Returning, after the good-life elsewhere, to the city to stay with her parents, one day she went over to the factory and saw someone bundled up in her work gear in a corner of the factory tossing steel ingots into a box. As Su Na approached she didn’t even know if it was a man or a woman. On discovering it was her mother, “I had never felt that sad in my whole life. It was like a sharp pain striking my heart. It made all my limbs ache.” This gap between mother and daughter is surrealism as the politically fast moving, a version of the bends as economic growth, with the daughter rising through the society, but when returning to witness her parents’ life can hardly comprehend it.

In a Film Comment interview with Andrew Chan, Jia admits there has been a change in his filmmaking approach, from his earlier features like Pickpocket and Unknown Pleasures, to films like 24 City. Talking of his use now of stars (working with Joan Chen and showing interest in working with Maggie Cheung), he reckons this lies in his interest in a certain approach to social history. “If I wanted to return to the kind of realist aesthetic I used in the past, I would find new non-professional actors to collaborate with. But at this stage of my work, I’m going through a big change. 24 City is evidence of that.” If the early work came out of discovering, “that there weren’t any movies that had any relationship to my own life” and that he “wanted to express all the memorable things that I had experienced”, he also adds that “this is still my primary responsibility as a filmmaker.” (Film Comment) This indicates that of course Jia has changed too, and that his style must shift as he tries to keep up with a fast moving world he wants to chronicle.

What remains consistent however is his interest in the specifics of feeling over the broader strokes of political polemics, and while this is maybe more likely to get his work made and shown in China, we needn’t see this as a form of political capitulation, but an opportunity for a different mode of expression. If  George Steiner during the Communist era mused over the great art that came out of this period, and wondered whether censorship created constraints on artists that could often be fruitful, we might wonder whether there is still some truth in this claim if we think of directors from Iran and China, two nations that have produced great work under difficult political circumstances. Rather than seeing 24 City as a compromised work that avoids the pressingly political questions, better to see it as a film keen to find in the politics an effusion of feeling.

This effusion is most pronounced in the music. Whether it is the classical piece over the opening credits that echoes the swirling of the smoke in the factory with the swelling on the soundtrack, or the pop song that accompanies a security guard as he tours the building, Jia allows the music to remain indeterminate. It is on the one hand intrusive but on the other not at all underscoring. It accompanies feeling but at a slight remove, as if Jia was more than happy to incorporate sentiment into the work but didn’t want it to accompany the image of emotion. He instead wanted the music to trail or anticipate it. When for example the music comes in as we’re introduced to He Xikun as he stares directly at the camera, this is far less an emotional moment than when he later meets his old work colleague, yet the music with its string emphasis is emphatic earlier on and the bugle music used no more as a sound bridge later as He Xikun tearfully reminisces with his colleague. Jia’s earlier work might have been more obviously focused on the naturalistic use of sound and the non-professional actor, but the score and the star on this occasion are not used unproblematically. The star is absorbed into the documentative approach so that a viewer with no great knowledge of Chinese cinema would take Joan Chen, Lu Li Ping and Zhao Tao as subjects within the film rather than as stars imposing themselves upon it, and the music doesn’t play with our emotions, but asks us to meditate over them.

Now usually stars and musical accompaniment are vital dimensions of mainstream film, with a star often introduced with the aid of an emphatic soundtrack announcing that a star is either born or reintroduced. At the beginning of Gone with the Wind, the music and the camera movements slowly pushing and pulling out on Vivien Leigh’s face, and later on Clark Gable’s, make us aware we are in the presence of stars. In Some Like it Hot, Marilyn Monroe is introduced to us with a musical accompaniment that leaves us in no doubt we are meeting someone special: the ultimate in femininity as well as the world’s biggest film celebrity. This is the Hollywood Dream Factory, and Gone with the Wind and Some Like it Hot marvellous examples of it. But of course Jia is seen as closer to the Dardennes or Kiarostami than to Victor Fleming or Billy Wilder. They work against the grain rather than with it, and so uncomplicated use of stardom might be seen as contrary to their general aesthetic (though of course both the Dardennes and Kiarostami have themselves moved towards working with well-known actors.) Rather than seeing Jia selling out here; it is better to see that he is finding ways of bringing music and stardom into the sphere of an indeterminate cinema over utilising stars and music to draw an ever bigger audience. Assuming the former could lead to ad hominem assumption; the latter approach allows questions of the film’s possibilities, as we explored when talking of the roles played by Joan Chen and Zhao Tao. What seems unequivocal is that Jia wanted to make a film that captures feeling as we often expect from fiction filmmaking, but also the processes of history as we might assume is more common in documentary. As he says in the excellent Press Notes, “I decided to integrate documentary and fiction in this parallel flow because this seemed to me the best way of representing the last half century of Chinese history.” This would seem to need stars and music from fiction, and a gentle interview approach from a certain type of documentary, but for the most indeterminate aesthetic ends and at the same time quite clear political ones. Jia’s film looks clearly at the cost of factory life in China, and no less clearly at the rapid changes. Yet the film as a film remain something of a mystery: it is a work that carries the ambiguity of art while functioning as a critique of modern Chinese industrial development.


©Tony McKibbin