24 City (2008)

24 City

Combining documentary and fiction, Jia Zhang Ke’s 24 City looks at the rise and fall of a Chengdu aeronautics factory. It’s China’s capitalist revolution in miniature.

24 City

Made In China by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Taking its name from an ancient poem, 24 City is based around the industrially prosaic Chengfa factory in Chengdu – a shining and prosperous city in Sichuan Province, “the cherished hibiscus of 24 city in full bloom”. Once a war-horse for China’s air industry, Factory 420 has survived many cultural revolutions, great leaps, austere five year plans, wars in Korea and Vietnam, impoverished peacetime, foreign takeovers and conversion into luxury flats, a history pieced together through the testimonies of eight factory workers. While three of these eye-witness accounts are fictional, they resonate just as strongly as their documentary counterparts, fusing elements of the factory’s fate into an unromantic and entirely plausible story.

Like the moribund town in his previous dambusting Still Life, Jia Zhang Ke shines his light onto Factory 420 just as twilight is turning into night. At a Transfer of Land Ceremony, a sea of blue-capped workers sing to the motherland, happily witnessing the state-owned factory’s hand-over to foreign investors hoping to alchemise factory charm into industrial-chic loft apartments for China’s growing numbers of nouveaux riches.

Studded with talking heads, poem excerpts and beautifully framed tableaux, 24 City documents the factory’s demise from manufacturing powerhouse to aspirational loft apartments, yet it feels almost like a cine-poem, threatening to drive the political and economic collateral into the abstract. If the testimonies weren’t so pointedly political.

It was Mao’s idea to put China’s armaments factories in Sichuan, well inland and firmly out of harm’s way. This industrial backwater became home for many who upped sticks from Shanghai voluntarily or who, without bitterness, were billeted there from the big smoke, settling in Chengdu to work for decades in the factory. And it’s these dedicated workers who gave their life and soul for the factory who form the backbone of the film, each with a poignant story or an apposite wisdom.

Like He Xikun, a true anti-cynic, who teaches us the value of everything. He recounts the tale of one worker who would sharpen his home-made scraping tool right to the quick for fear of wastage. Not out of money-saving economy, but rather out of respect for the workers whose efforts went into creating the small piece of manufactured iron. Workers’ efforts are sacred and it’s a view shared by Jia Zhang Ke, whose camera caresses the forging of steel instruments and the methodical dismantling of the factory, where each lampshade and tile is carefully reclaimed.

Little Flower’s fictional testimony is not dissimilar. Deployed to Factory 420 from the Shanghai Aviation Academy, Gu Minghua seized the opportunity to escape her elephant-in-the-stomach-of-a-sparrow home with seven people  squeezed into 20 square metres. Her story is a sad one; still unmarried despite the best start possible as the factory’s prettiest flower. And yet the Yue opera singer’s most poignant message is also to treasure every object, every work of industry, telling her tale of the dishy pilot whose photo she falls for before finding out he was the victim of a misshapen component from their factory, killed trying to save the plane they bungled.

Played by Joan Chen, Little Flower took her moniker from the film of the same name, which catapulted Joan Chen into fame. It’s an amusingly pointed intertextuality which both draws attention to the fictionality of this episode, but also to the levels of interplay between documentary and fiction, setting 24 City up a kind of tarnished mirror to the 1979 blockbuster, as Zhang Zheng’s Little Flower takes on documentary form.

Older characters illustrate the workers’ fate in China, like Hou Lijan, laid off during economy drives, despite plenty of hard work and loyalty. Or Hao Dali, with her itinerant IV drip, who exposes the poverty of a retired Chengdu factory worker, once able to support relatives with money and old factory gloves, now dependent on them for charity.

But by contrast, it’s Su Na who represents China’s most modern wave of workers. Once a pupil at the factory’s school, she now makes a comfortable living shopping in Hong Kong and Singapore for the rich, too idle to hit the shops themselves. Her work pales in comparison with the hard graft of her parents who worked at the factory, but with her VW Beetle and designer clothes, she is able to make more money than the older generation ever could, saving to secure their future with an apartment in the new 24 City high-rise. It’s a kind gesture, both apt and absurd.

But it is with this grand geste that Jia Zhiang Ke captures another great leap forward. Su Na’s parents, and all their generation, worked hard to bring China out of the industrial age and into modernity, to embrace western values of globalisation, communication and consumption. But with 24 City’s loveless depiction of real-estate and construction, Jia Zhang Ke instils a backward-looking nostalgia, a yearning for the grimy-handed worker and the lovingly manufactured object. It’s a materialism completely opposed to China’s modern-day consumerism, but one well worth remembering.

24 City is released in the UK on 30th April 2010.

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