Jia Zhangke last touched the screens with his meditative “Still Life,” a mesmerizing film about migrants and factory workers displaced by the damming of the Three Gorges.
It was a realist masterpiece, hailed around the world as a work of art. Reviewers rarely penned a paragraph without making reference to Antonioni or Rossellini. “Jia Zhangke is among the most strikingly gifted filmmakers working today,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times, adding, “whom you have probably never heard of.”
With his newest feature, “24 City,” his lack of celebrity is unlikely to change, which is a pity: it’s a remarkable film. Shooting in Chengdu City, Sichuan, Jia followed the life of a factory that’s being torn down. The factory is real, and so are the stories.
It started as a topsecret fighter plane production plant. Children were born into the factory’s families, and, as the kids came of age, joined the workforce themselves. Meanwhile, war faded into the past, and the manufacturing turned to products and machinery, instead. But now the factory is old, and profits are low, so they’re tearing it down and sending up luxury condominiums. So far, 20,000 workers have been displaced.
Jia searched through the neighborhood’s rubble, shooting raw factory life, the dismantling of the buildings, and the dismantling of the community. He managed to catch a spectacular number of small, perfect moments: pick-up basketball games, company songs, drunken snippets of mumbled conversation. He interviewed over a hundred people he came across, catching fading memories, touching stories of factory childhoods, anecdotes about those who have long disappeared.
Sitting in a conference room, a middle-aged man named Song Weidong reminisces about the trouble he used to get up to as a child.
The kids were jeering me. As in some movie, they said: “On behalf of the masses, I sentence you to death.”
Pángbiān xiǎohái hái qǐ hòng， hái xué diànyǐng lǐ de：”Wǒ dàibiǎo rénmín, xuānbù nǐ sǐxíng.”
I was sure they were going to beat me up. I just wanted my bike, I had to get it back home, otherwise I couldn’t face my dad.
Wǒ xiǎng，kěndìng zhè dùn dǎ shì dé āi le。Wǒ jiù xiǎng zìxíngchē wǒ déi bǎ tā ná huíqù， yàobùrán wǒ méi fǎ gēn wǒ bà jiāodài。
To my surprise, Zhou Chao said to me: “I’ve thought it over, Premier Zhou Enlai passed away today. So I’ll let you off.”
Méi xiǎngdào，zhège Zhōucháo gēn wǒ shuō le yī jù huà：”wǒ kànzài jīntiān Zhōu zǒnglǐ qùshì de fèn shàng，wǒ ráo le nǐ.”
Then he and his boys left.
Wánle dài rén jiù chè le。
I was amazed. I rode home in a hurry. When I got there, I found my parents making little white paper flowers.
Shǎ le wǒ dāngshí，gǎnjǐn qí zìxíngchē jiù huíjiā. Huíjiā yī kàn，wǒ bà wǒ mā zài nàr，ná báizhǐ，zuòxiǎo báihuā ne.
Premier Zhou had really passed away.
Zhōu zǒnglǐ zhēn de qùshì le.
Song Weidong is real. And this is a true story. But this realism is not reality, and not all of the people are legit. Fans of Jia’s work have learned to expect diversions—in “Still Life,” after two hours of a slow, meandering story, there’s a sudden and unexplained appearance of a UFO along the Yangtze River. In “24 City,” meanwhile, he took on a handful of actors, and threw them into the otherwise truthful mix. Jia is practicing a realism of his own, perhaps realism with Chinese characteristics.
Halfway through the film, Joan Chen (of “Twin Peaks” and “Lust, Caution”) shows up. She plays Xiao Hua, a factory worker turned beautician, who’d worked at Factory 420 since the ‘70s.
On my first day at work, I went to Canteen 2 for lunch. It was terribly crowded.
Bàodào de nà yī tiān qù dì-èr shítáng chī wǔfàn，jiù fāxiàn nàbiān de rén tèbié de duō.
I later found out the men who ate in Canteens 1 and 3 had come to see the girls from Shanghai.
Hòulái cái zhīdào，yuánlái yào qù dì-yī, dì-sān shítáng de gōngrén，dōu pǎodào wǒmen zhèbiān lái kàn Shànghǎi gūniang.
Especially the younger men, they made comments about us. Things like that went on for quite some time.
Tèbié shi nàxiē niánqīng de xiǎohuǒzi，jiù duìzhe wǒmen píngtóulùnzú. Zhèyàng de chǎngmiàn ō，wéichí le hěn cháng shíjiān.
Later some guy, I never knew who, gave me the nickname “Standard Component.”
Hòulái，bùzhīdào shì shuí gěi wǒ qǐ le ge wàihào，jiào “biāozhǔnjiàn”.
At first, I had no idea what it meant. LaterI came to know it meant “flower of the factory.”
Yī kāishǐ wǒ yě gǎo bù dǒng shénme yìsi. Hòulái cái zhīdào qíshí jiùshì chǎng huā de yìsi.
After that, people began calling me “Little Flower.”
Zài hòulái，yòu yǒurén kāishǐ jiào wǒ xiǎo huā.
Before the audience is drawn in, and forgets this is now a work of semi-fiction, Jia Zhangke cracks the wall of authenticity with a smirk. Joan Chen’s character explains that she was renamed “Little Flower” by her comrades, only because she so closely resembles the heroine of the 1979 movie that made Joan Chen a star.
Our factory showed that movie for a whole week.
Chǎng bù yīlián fàng le yī ge lǐbài.
Many people saw it several times.
Hǎoxie rén dōu kàn hǎo jǐ cì.
They came out saying I looked like Little Flower, the heroine, played by Joan Chen.
Pǎo chūlai dōu shuō wǒ zhǎng de xiàng xiǎo huā，jiùshì chén chōng yǎn de nèige.
At first, they used the name behind my back. Then, to my face.
Yī kāishǐ zài bèidì jiào，hòulái dāngmiàn yě jiào.
After a while, my real name was known to very few people.
Fǎn’ér wǒzìjǐ de zhēn míngzi méiyǒu jǐ gè rén zhīdao le.
It’s neither documentary nor fiction. Chen’s stories are real, but the teller is fake. Sometimes, though, the tellers are real. It’s difficult to know which is which.
Ultimately, the film is a compelling and illuminating scenario of modern China, a microcosm of what is happening. It’s about the dislocation felt across the country. In a re-enacted scene, the aging Da Li waits to see a doctor at the factory clinic.
Da Li: You called me aunty? You should call me granny.
Dàlì：Nǐ jiào wǒ āyí a？ nǐ yīnggāi jiào wǒ nǎinai.
Da Li: This Director Song, has he come yet?
Dàlì： Zhè Sòng zhǔrèn，jiūjìng lái le méiyǒu？
Nurse: He has. He’s probably in a meeting with the bosses.
Hùshi：Lái le. Kěnéng zài dà lǐngdǎo nàbiān ba.
Da Li: Are you new here?
Dàlì：Nǐ shì xīnlái de ba？
Nurse: Yes. I just graduated.
Hùshi：Shì’a，wǒ gāng cóng xuéxiào bìyè guòlai.
Da Li: Nowadays you can wear make-up to work?
Dàlì：Xiànzài shàngbānr，dōu yǔnxǔ huàzhuāng a?
Nurse: Of course, foreign enterprises expect you to wear make-up to work.
Hùshi：Dāngrán kěyǐ，wàiqǐ bù huàzhuāng hái bù ràng shàngbānr ne.
Da Li pauses.
Da Li: Isn’t this state-owned?
Dàlì：wàiqǐ，zhè bù shì guóqǐ ma？
The nurse looks down at her lap, and wipes the makeup off her lips. This is a story of changing worlds. This is a story of changing realities.
And, just as Joan Chen plays a character that’s named after a character that was played by Joan Chen, Jia Zhangke confuses his own art and life. To produce “24 City,” his fictional documentary about a luxury condo, he accepted investment from the developers of 24 City, the real Chengdu City luxury condo. While he’s not promoting himself with the skill of Zhang Yimou just yet, this seems like a good start. We may need to start watching this auteur carefully. Perhaps inspired by his predecessor Zhang’s shocking transition from slow art to operatic kung fu, Jia’s next film is also, in a bold and surprising move, full of kung fu.
- What do you think of that character?
- It’s a real-life story.