New Doc Looks at the Closing of State Factory 420 in China
Friday, September 25, 2009
Host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks talk about 24 City.
In these harsh economic times, Americans are getting used to factories closing. The new film "24 City" (opening September 25 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium 15) chronicles the closing of China's state-owned Factory 420 and examines its demise in the context of a half-century of communist rule. You can also listen to the discussion of the film on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
Jia Zhang-ke’s “24 City” shares similarities with Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze.” Both films examine China in the midst of cultural and economic upheaval. Both use compelling interviews that place people cleverly in their environments. And both appear deceptively simple as they use very intimate portraits to convey a bigger picture about China.
Jia’s film bears witness to the closing of the state owned Factory 420. But the witnesses prove to be both faux and real. But more on that later. The press materials explain that the Chengdu Engine Group was founded in 1958 and given the name Factory 420 as an internal military security code. The factory successfully produced aviation engines for years. But recently it was abandoned and was eventually sold for millions to real-estate developers. The film chronicles the demolition of the factory as the area is prepped for transformation. It will become the site of a complex of luxury apartment blocks called 24 City, and it’s being groomed as a symbol of China’s economic future and prosperity. But the film focuses only on the demolition of the old and does not offer much in the way of showing the actual construction of the bright future promised. In fact Jia finds a kind of magnificent poetry in the images of the plant’s demolition.
Jia employs no narration and many shots play out in silence or to music. He continually cuts back to the entrance to the factory and the immense signage at the top of the gates. As the film proceeds the Chinese characters from the sign are taken down and eventually replaced by a new sign announcing the new development. In one evocative scene we simply see workers carrying away one giant Chinese letter, and the image conveys so much so simply about the changes occurring in China. Jia also makes sure that nothing is wasted in his frame. So interviewees are always shot in an environment that provides more than just a talking head. So one man is in a theater as two other men play badminton on a stage with a scenic painted backdrop. The shot says something about images the government likes to convey about China. Jia also serves up portraits of people in their environment, especially at the old factory. So a woman stands in the abandoned plant as a fan (or possibly a jet engine) blows her hair as if she were a fashion model. Jia holds on the shot for so long that she starts to laugh, and we start to think about all the changes that have come to both her and the factory.
The film is structured around eight people – five real and three actresses playing factory workers -- who recount stories about their work and personal lives. Each person is given center stage to tell his or her story with minimal interruption. Cuts are clearly marked by a complete fade to black with a moment to ponder what was said, and then the interviewee continues. Some recall mundane aspects of their job while other startle us with tragic tales. A repairman, He Xikun, talks favorably about the old days but wells up with tears when he visits his senile old boss. Hou Lijun is interviewed on a bus and recalls coming to the plant as a young girl with her mother.
But then Jia inserts actors Zhao Tao, Joan Chen and Lu Liping as characters. Lu plays a woman who describes a journey by boat the employees took. When she explains how they made a stop to shop, she begins to cry, and explains with quiet horror how she lost her young child and had to return to the boat before having a chance to find him. Another woman, this one played by Joan Chen, provides an example of how the state tried to drive home the importance of doing a good job. A photo of a young man is posted and when an official comes to the factory he informs the workers that the young man had died because his plane had a defective part produced at their factory. One of you, he tells them, is responsible for this young man’s death.
Jia doesn’t let audiences know where fact ends and fiction begins; he treats the real workers in exactly the same manner as the professional actors. Jia has stated in interviews that he feels free to mix real and fictional characters because “as far as I’m concerned, history is always a blend of facts and imagination.” True but I’m not entirely clear on what Jia’s point is in mixing the two as he does.
It would seem that his film would make a greater impact exploring blurring the line between reality and fiction if audiences were more aware of the conceit. Maybe his point is that in the real world we don’t always know where that line is as we watch the news or listen to politicians speak. But non-Chinese audiences are at a disadvantage because they may not recognize that he's using Asian stars (only Chen is likely to be at all familiar), and could easily watch the entire film and never suspect that part of what they are seeing is fiction. Jia’s experiment comes across as more self-indulgent than illuminating yet it’s also provocative considering that it comes from a country that has always been concerned with the image it presents to the outside world.
There’s is a scene in “24 City” when Chen’s character claims to have been dubbed “Little Flower” because she looked like Joan Chen in a movie. Maybe that’s Jia’s obvious nod to what he’s trying to do, and his way of alerting us to how guilliable we may be to connecting the real and the fictional. On a certain level his experiment works and on another level it frustrates. Mixing the real and the fictional help to emphasize a difference between an old and a new China, and to convey a sense of odd dislocation as massive change forces people out of their old ways of living and sometimes out of the physical place where they are living. But, I’m still not certain if the scripted material is based on fact or completely manufactured. From what I have read about the film, it seems the three actresses are telling the stories of other women from the factory.
Jia also employs pop songs, propaganda songs, quotes, and poetry to broaden his portrait. So you can find such words of wisdom as, “If you have something to do you age more slowly.” Yet the communist government seems to have let these workers down. Many of them talk about being unemployed or having to rely on others after the factory closed. They were so proud to be employed at the plant but now some seem lost and dislocated.
“24 City” (unrated and in Chinese with English subtitles) is provocative and flawed but nonetheless compelling in serving up a portrait of China in the midst of enormous change. Jia is an artist who is very conscious of how he presents and packages his material. His approach may put some people off in the same way that Michael Moore’s highly personal non-fiction narrative do because both are manipulating fact and fiction.
Companion viewing: “Up the Yangtze,” “Manufactured Landscapes,” “Capitalism: A Love Story”
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