September 28, 2008
24 City, 2008
In its portrait of a culture on the verge of erasure with the advent of redevelopment and gentrification, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City shares kinship with José Luis Guerín's En Construcción, reflecting the idea of a city built from the rubble of abandoned, forgotten histories. Interweaving first person and composite, fictional interviews with workers, friends, and children in Chengdu whose livelihood had revolved around the state-owned factories and who now face an uncertain future with the dismantling of the industrial complex built around Factory 420, a former top secret aircraft parts manufacturing plant that had been realigned for closure as the country transitions from planned to market economy, Jia returns to the themes of social disparity enabled by a dual economic system (most notably, in Unknown Pleasures) and the dissolution of the traditional family caused by shifting social policy (in particular, the displacement caused by job relocations designed to encourage industrial development in southwest China). In 24 City, the characters are paradoxically connected by a sense of estrangement and disconnection. A retired factory worker visits his ailing mentor and foreman only to retreat in silence, unable to sustain a conversation because of his mentor's declining physical and mental health. A middle-aged worker riding a bus remembers the hardships caused by mass layoffs in the state-run factories, and her tearful, once in a lifetime reunion with her grandparents in the country after moving to Chengdu for work, expressing her gratefulness for being able to bring her mother to live with her in the city for the final months of her life. A retired pensioner (played by actress Lu Liping) tells the story of losing her son during a forced evacuation of the high security industrial complex, and her unexpected role reversal from her nephews' benefactor during the height of Factory 420's production, to charity recipient after its closure. An unmarried, middle-aged woman nicknamed by coworkers as "Little Bird" for her resemblance to actress Joan Chen (collapsing the bounds between reality and fiction by having the actress play the character) recounts her reluctant decision to leave her family home in Shanghai because of overcrowded living conditions (also alluding to the era before the institution of the "one child" policy), and now feels equally isolated in Chengdu without the support of her surrogate family of coworkers. But perhaps the most direct correlation to En Construcción lies in the story of twenty-something fashion consultant, Su Na (Zhao Tao) who, like the young couple in Guerín's film, observe the construction of the luxury apartment building from a condemned vantage point, figuratively reflecting their status as outsiders within the revitalized city. In this sense, Jia illustrates the trauma of country's fundamental change in economic policy as a reflection of moral consciousness, where the ingrained frugality of finding utility in even the most worn down of archaic tools has been replaced by a myopic commerce of exploitation and disposability.