Jia Zhang-ke’s cinema of cultural transition continues with 24 City, a unique pseudo-documentary about the impending destruction of the 420 Factory in the heart of Chengdu. After interviewing dozens of factory workers, Jia decided to use a handful of both professional actors and actual workers to convey the stories and experiences of the larger group. He mixes these staged interviews with a series of dramatized sequences and visual tableaux of the factory and its place within the city, resulting in a film htat makes fact and fiction indistinguishable from one another. Jia rewrites the factory’s history in a way that cleverly and subtly mirrors China’s own recent tendency to erase and build over its own past -- and, in a sense, to create a new national narrative of its own choosing.
Vaguely reminiscent of the documentaries of Werner Herzog, Jia's film seeks to capture the “ecstatic truth” of its subject. This can only be achieved, to over-simplify the German master’s philosophy, by effectively blurring the line between documentary and drama, “honest” emotion and imaginative recreations. Unfortunately, the technique is not quite as effective in Jia’s hands as it has been in Herzog's.
That isn’t to say 24 City is without a handful of strangely alluring moments: The young girl skating in circles to dreamlike, thumping techno beats as Jia slowly pans to the factory lit up at night; the amusingly self-referential interview in which Joan Chen plays a fictional character who long ago was nicknamed “Little Flower” due to her resemblance to a character in an old film with the same name. (That character was -- you guessed it -- played by Joan Chen). Jia's film is full of detailed shots from inside the factory and panoramic views of the surrounding area. And while these are all beautiful, touching and eccentric in their own way, they never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Despite these moments of wonder and tenderness, Jia more effectively explored his obsession with memory and China's inability to come to terms with its historical past in his previous film, the entirely fictional Still Life. Made two years before 24 City but only recently released in the U.S., that film more successfully wove personal stories into the backdrop of a city whose identity was slowly being wiped away. 24 City tackles similar thematic ground, but its style is more reserved, often resting its camera on a character for several minutes of monologue. While this allows for some of the film’s more potent emotional recollections about regret and lost love to reach the audience unfiltered, it too often breaks up the flow of the rest of the film (and I assure you this is no Masculine-Feminine in terms of formal inventiveness). In the end, the filmmaker's fragmented approach marks an interesting, if not entirely successful, departure for one of China’s most talented working directors.