Still Life, the director's last stateside-distributed film object about the displaced wanderers surviving on the outskirts of the Three Gorges Dam project, demonstrated how very strange life in rural China has become. In Jia's new film 24 City, which takes place in Chengdu City, the most memorable images are more subdued and compacted: An assembly of workers singing "The International," a factory being demolished, Joan Chen playing a one-time factory employee whose co-workers remark that she resembles Joan Chen.
The film's focus is how the aforementioned State-owned munitions factory, Factory 420, figures into China's constant lumbering toward capitalism. The factory itself acts as allegory as Jia surveys the landscape and interviews former 420 workers -- some real, some fictional. Metaphor-heavy as it is, much of Zhang-ke's film is devoted to the personal, though it is almost immediately processed into the political and cultural. The final subjects, one of which is played by Zhang-ke's staple performer Zhao Tao, remember 420 as fading childhood memories, lingering in the subconscious; for the earlier interviewees, the factory is part of their structured work ethic, if not their very persona. One of the more heartbreaking interviewees, a struggling mother and former 420 worker riding the bus home, ironically talks about a motto she hung to her wall: "Come rain, come shine, I must go forward."
Jia's film was partially backed by the same financiers and developers who leveled Factory 420 and who are now using the land to build an ever-spreading cluster of condos called 24 City. There are those who might decry Jia's questionable allegiances, but his film becomes whatever the viewer wants it to be. Whether this is a hymn to the tech-driven, capitalist now or a Maoist battle cry is no simple question, nor is it one that necessarily needs an answer. The truth of what is said is a matter of perception, like the country's dynamic sense of progress.
The questions and observations that arise from Jia's work are those of how history and labor fit into a system which is based intrinsically on the concept of leisure. Where do factory workers, specters of Mao's China, fit in? More importantly: Can the national motto really be the same as the one the mother on the bus hung up on her wall?
Aka Er shi si cheng ji.
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th March 2009
Distributed by: FilmsWeLike
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Producer: Jia Zhang-ke, Ichiyama Shozo
Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke, Zhai Yongming
Also starring: Ichiyama Shozo
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