Imitation of Life

James Quandt on Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Su Na (Zhao Tao).

BABIES DEAD FROM MELAMINE in their milk, Rem Koolhaas’s Beijing hotel up in flames, earthquake victims protesting lax construction standards, workers rioting as the tiger economy tanks: Chinese officials may have pulled off the vast, falsifying spectacle of last year’s Olympics, but the corruption and sheer haplessness of their regime now leaves the country uneasy and teetering. Jia Zhang-ke, chronicler and bard of the new China with his densely poetic films about the dislocation and anxiety caused by Deng Xiaoping’s market “reforms,” had already captured the arrogating power of spectacle in a country intent on erecting a pristine facsimile of late civilization over the drowned villages, polluted skies, and broken hopes of its populace. In Jia’s The World (2004), the hermetic artifice of a gleaming global village, pared down to its touristic high points to create a Baudrillardian theme park outside Beijing, represents the China made by post-Mao functionaries—a vast “show,” as the director called it, meant to divert attention from the immense social costs of the abrupt shift from collectivism to a rapacious form of laissez-faire.

Jia’s latest film, the equally prescient 24 City—which opens in New York on June 5—recounts the abandonment of a once thriving factory, foretelling China’s new hordes of unemployed (ironically now celebrating the Year of the Ox, symbol of hard work). Jia uses the erasure of a symbolic locale—Factory 420, a former Communist aeronautics and munitions plant built in Chengdu in 1958, now being demolished to make way for the eponymous complex of luxury hotel and apartments—to signify the official expunging of history, much as the Three Gorges Dam swallowed up the past in Jia’s last masterpiece, Still Life (2006). Whether longing for the security, communal values, and stability of pre–free market China (a variant on East German Ostalgie) or contemptuous of the grasping, heedless nature of his country’s market economy, Jia presents the state-owned factory as a lost utopia. The director culled from 130 interviews with the plant’s former workers five individual remembrances, which coalesce into a group portrait, a collective history of a secret and self-sufficient world, separated from the surrounding city, with its own dormitories, cinema, and swimming pool. Forced decades later to convert to the production of consumer goods, the factory first downsized and finally was sold to a private company. In an early sequence that brilliantly captures the rank insincerity of the “ceremony for transfer of land,” a crowd of rose-cheeked former employees sing in celebration of “our motherland, as she prospers and grows strong,” even as they individually face the prospect of much the opposite.

If in his previous documentary, Useless (2007), Jia lost control of his meaning—the film misconstrues its admiration for its subject, fashion designer Ma Ke—in 24 City the director exerts a formal and thematic control poised between the intricate and the overwrought. Scored less with his trademark pop songs than with elegiac music— a mournful bugle, plaintive strings that suggest Barber’s Adagio—and evocatively shot, 24 City alternates slow lateral tracks that traverse the deserted factory with artfully fixed compositions, notably several frontally composed friezes of workers and a close-up of a pressure gauge, its face and curlicue cable isolated in the frame by billowing steam, packing the graphic potency of early Ivens or Antonioni. Employing frequent fades to black, the film incorporates into its pristine images a number of texts and documents: exhortatory signs and banners (observe safety, treasure life), official records (staff canteen pass, regulations for a social center, identity card), and excerpts from poems, some Chinese, some by Yeats. With an eye for found symmetry— an early image abstracts two lines of workers, one horizontal, the other ascending a staircase, into a right-pointing arrow—and a propensity for statement and refrain, Jia returns to images, objects, and settings: an overhead shot of a stairwell with a lone security guard; a monument comprising several fighter planes; a roomful of mah-jongg players; and, most insistently, the factory’s entrance, at first swarmed by workers, eventually desolate, its sign dismantled and replaced.

Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia encourages the incursion of reality into fiction, and vice versa, allocating the last half of 24 City, ostensibly a documentary, to fabrication: The film controversially includes scripted monologues performed by four actors, interpolated as actual interviews. Jia says the strategy was intended to give the film emotional force and complexity, but three sentimental tales of loss, performed with conspicuous modesty by a trio of China’s leading actresses, Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and Jia’s muse Zhao Tao, prove less affecting than the authentic reminiscences of real exworkers earlier in the film. Rather than disguise his gambit, Jia emphasizes its provocation: Joan Chen, shot in long take, her side profile framed in a bifurcated mirror, plays a worker originally from Shanghai known as “Little Flower” for her resemblance to the character of the same name in a classic, starring none other than Joan Chen. (We later see a clip from the old film playing on a television set.) The almost parodically modernist apartment in which a fourth faked interview was conducted, with a young plant manager (played by Chen Jianbin), indicates both its occupant’s nouveau riche stature and the artifice of his participation in the film.

24 City eloquently extends the central concerns of Jia’s cinema—the obsolescent lives, throwaway traditions, broken or vanished ideals mourned in a dancehall song in his short film In Public (2001): “The laborious and courageous Chinese people, marching with vigor into a new age.” Chengdu joins Jia’s other abject cities, such as flooded Fengjie in Still Life or derelict Datong with its unfinished highway in Unknown Pleasures (2002), in which the eternal and the ephemeral seem interchangeable, temps forever perdu as the “new age” arrives, in the obliterating form of a dam, bridge, road, or hotel, ceaseless in its ruination.

This article is reprinted from the May 2009 issue of Artforum. 24 City opens at the IFC Center in New York on June 5. For more details, click here.