Oct 28, 2008

NY Film Festival: 24 City

I have seen three films by Jia Zhangke. Still Life, The World and now 24 City. In all of them Jia is worried sick about the devastating effects of the rapid transformation of China from everything it was before (an agricultural economy, an ancient culture, a Communist country) into what it is today: a steamroller of unbridled development, greed and corruption and diminishing values.
In Still Life a poor laborer comes back from the big city looking for the family he left behind only to find that his neighborhood is now drowned under the waters of the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters on Earth. The World shows the surrealistic parallel reality of a Chinese sort of Epcot Center in Beijing, where the outside world is rendered in simplistic stereotypes (just like Epcot Center) which ordinary Chinese people can visit (if they can afford it) and forget about ever actually seeing the real thing. In 24 City he chronicles, in a mix of documentary and fictionalization, the demise of an old armament factory and its transformation into a cluster of expensive condos in the ever growing city of Chengdu.
I imagined Jia to be a sober, meditative man in his sixties, so melancholy and mature are his movies. It turns out he is only 39 years old.
Jia pulls you in with human stories told with the greatest restrain and discretion, with touching grace and with all the time in the world. The stately pace of his movies seems a deliberate comment on the rush of the Chinese government to change everything now, no matter what the consequences. "You are not stopping and looking at the people you are trampling", he seems to say, "so I'm going to show you". Stoic people, bewildered people, people used to injustice and penury, incredibly resourceful and spirited.
24 City is a series of interviews with former factory workers. They go chronologically from the oldest members of the factory to their children or grandchildren today. Through these interviews emerges a deep portrait of Chinese culture in flux. The older people reminisce about the golden years of the factory when they were making arms for the Korean war or the Vietnam war, they remember the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution, where they were protected from Mao's raving cruelty and from famine by their very important military jobs. They remember the aftermath of Mao, in the eighties, when their weap0ns became irrelevant and the factory downsized and became a factory of other things. Through these memories what emerges is a portrait of individuals who until very recently could only think of themselves as part of a bigger context: their families, their factory, their country. It would be unthinkable for a Chinese person born in 1958 to go against their parents wishes and look for opportunities outside the factory, whereas the younger generations are wired completely differently. They want to make money, they want to study, they want to move to another city, they want to shop.
That the elderly in China feel nostalgia for the days of orthodox Communism is very poignant. The Chinese value authority and respect and a community framework. Family is the social unit, not the individual. For the elderly, this sense of community has been lost. I don't think that Jia is glorifying Communism. Through the words of the people he interviews emerge portraits of harrowing personal sacrifice. He admires and respects the ordinary people who sacrificed but not those who controlled them.
Interestingly, Jia intersperses real factory workers with actors playing factory workers. As he said in the interview yesterday at the end of the film, he felt he needed to supplement the real with fictional material, but to him all of them are real. This new trend in movies to blur the line between fiction and reality is very interesting, particularly when exercised by serious, talented filmmakers like Jia and Laurent Cantet.
Jia's films are set in ugly urban areas, in decaying factories, in dirty alleyways. The new China is an eyesore, buy there is not one single frame in his movies that is ugly. His compositions are serene and beautiful, almost hypnotic. And it's not because he art directs or beautifies, but because he finds symmetry everywhere. His films are an amazing window into the soul of China today.

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