A digital eulogy for a mechanical age, Jia Zhangke's third documentary, 24 City, begins with a shot of workers entering a factory — an inversion announcing a film responding to, and enacting, profound cyclical shifts in established Chinese national and personal systems, in production and cinema.
In Chengdu, the rapidly-everything capital of Sichuan province, the old munitions factory known as Factory 420 is being demolished and moved away from the city center to make way for a future-shocking hi-rise development called 24 City (after an old poem about the city). As in his last fiction film, Still Life, which took place in a part of Sichuan about to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam project, Jia has set up camp in a staging area that also serves as a metaphor for the Chinese capitalist mix of central authority and stratospheric unregulated growth. The heart of 24 City consists of, essentially, still-life portraits of now-vacated and demolished places, and uncertain people.
Jia's camera-eye has always tended towards balanced framings of transitional spaces, captured here on pristine video. But stories are all in this interview-based doc. The nine primary interviews are arranged chronologically, from oldest to youngest, and the (frequently extremely moving) testimonials start out expressing pride in a job and solidarity with the idea of work (at the expense of family time), and end up with exemplars of the New China living out the discovery of individualism and the ego's subsequent shift into materialism, to say nothing of the horror of a previous generation's industrial-peasant drudgery.
But, yeah, I said this film acts as an inversion of cinema, too: certain in-between scenes of social interaction are as obviously staged as Jia's portraits of Chengdu residents, for one, and in fact four of the monologues are scripted, and delivered by professional actors. (Four of the nine, in fact. The woman whose friends used to tell her she looked like Joan Chen... well, to paraphrase Spacey in L.A. Confidential, she is Joan Chen.) (And, as you can see in the above-pictured poster, she's first glimpsed looking into a vanity and putting on makeup, a la Josie Packard.) As in Still Life (or Jia's prior The World), they're actors wandering around a documentary about a real place; this hi-definition "objective" portrait is actually manipulative, the opposite of the "actualités" of the Lumiere brothers.
So, ok, why? Well, a critic I very much admire suggests:
Jia seems... interested in the instability of memory in China's mad dash toward hypermodernity. Foucault famously called history a "fiction," in the sense that it was a deliberately fashioned object, collectively forged and put to work as society needed. With 24 City, Jia seems to imply that a "usable past," or even just a halfway coherent one, may end up being the province of our fabulists.To which I'd add that if Jia manufactures history so too does his country's image-conscious authoritarian government; and not only has the Chinese government rewritten history but they're also its original authors, as revealed in 24 City's tales of citizens uprooted by assignments to study, live or work in new cities (and the more subtle migratory pressure, now, of economic necessity). 24 City is a telling bit of journalism and an affecting elegy, yes, but it's also a movie about the making and remaking and ways of making things. I mean, it's a movie about a factory, isn't it?