'24 City': China's Tidal Changes, In Microcosm

Lv Liping in '24 City' i i

The Old Guard: Actress Lv Liping plays a composite character — one of several created from more than 130 interviews with former workers at a Chinese armaments factory. For decades, the factory's business was a state secret. Now it's been torn down to make way for a mixed-use high-rise development. Cinema Guild hide caption

itoggle caption Cinema Guild
Lv Liping in '24 City'

The Old Guard: Actress Lv Liping plays a composite character — one of several created from more than 130 interviews with former workers at a Chinese armaments factory. For decades, the factory's business was a state secret. Now it's been torn down to make way for a mixed-use high-rise development.

Cinema Guild

24 City

  • Director: Jia Zhangke
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 108 minutes

Unrated: Adult talk

With: Joan Chen, Lv Liping, Zhao Tao, Zhao Gang

(Recommended)

Zhao Tao in '24 City' i i

Proletariat Boutique: Zhao Tao plays the part of a woman who has traded factory life for a job as a personal shopper. Cinema Guild hide caption

itoggle caption Cinema Guild
Zhao Tao in '24 City'

Proletariat Boutique: Zhao Tao plays the part of a woman who has traded factory life for a job as a personal shopper.

Cinema Guild
Joan Chen in '24 City' i i

Factory Girl: Joan Chen plays a composite character called Little Flower — an opera singer nicknamed for a famous film by that name, which starred ... Joan Chen. Cinema Guild hide caption

itoggle caption Cinema Guild
Joan Chen in '24 City'

Factory Girl: Joan Chen plays a composite character called Little Flower — an opera singer nicknamed for a famous film by that name, which starred ... Joan Chen.

Cinema Guild

In his latest look at his rapidly modernizing homeland, the virtuoso Chinese director Jia Zhangke depicts extraordinary changes in both economy and psychology.

Indeed, 24 City reveals generation-gap issues that — Maoism aside — are just as pertinent to Western societies as to China.

Condensing his country's recent transformation to the events that transpire on a single plot of land, Jia observes the shutdown of Factory 420, once a top-secret manufacturer of military aviation parts. The Chengdu industrial plant, still bustling in the movie's opening footage, is destined to become 24 City, an upscale high-rise office, residential and entertainment complex.

Jia's Still Life, released in the U.S. in 2008, combined a fictional story with vivid documentary footage of a region that was about to be flooded by the massive Three Gorges Dam. Reversing that strategy, 24 City includes evocative footage of Factory 420's dismantling, but emphasizes people over place.

Five old-timers poignantly describe life — which means mostly work — in the self-contained industrial complex. They're followed by four other "witnesses" who are actually actors, playing composite characters drawn from interviews with 130 veterans of Factory 420.

Among the redevelopment's ironies is that Factory 420 was a relatively prosperous place in its time: Because its workers were building armaments for the war against "imperialism," they received bonus pay and extra food rations.

But what seemed like a good deal during the Great Leap Forward has no appeal to the young residents of today's booming China.

One now-retired worker, originally from the provinces, describes how she sent tattered work gloves to her small-town sister, who unraveled the yarn and used it to knit clothing for her children. Another describes his shame when he realized he was abandoning worn-out tools while a colleague was continuing to use equally damaged ones.

A generational shift — and a lighter tone — arrives with a woman who performed with the factory's Beijing Opera troupe. She's called Little Flower because she resembles Joan Chen, the star of a movie of that name. (Jia is being playful: Little Flower is Joan Chen, playing one of those composite roles.) The other semifictional interviewees include a TV host who quit factory work at 16 because it was "boring" — not an option for his parents.

The lurch from anti-imperialism to consumer capitalism is exemplified by the final character, played by regular Jia actress Zhao Tao. She takes the role of a young woman who's made a career as a personal shopper. Bye-bye, class struggle; hello, semiannual sales.

Given the grimness of the earlier anecdotes, this switch to lives of show business and designer apparel is jarring. But then it should be. What's happened in China since Mao's death is no less disorienting.

Two upheavals have hit Chengdu since Jia shot 24 City: a major earthquake and the meltdown of the West's economies. In the long run, however, neither is likely to reverse the process the movie documents. Factory 420 is gone forever, and 24 City is here to stay. (Recommended)

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