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Where EAST meets the Northwest

FACT AND FICTION. Jia Zhangke’s pseudo-documentary 24 City depicts the history of Factory 420, a munitions plant in Chengdu built during Mao’s Cultural Revolution that is slated for conversion into a high-rise apartment and business complex. (Photos courtesy of the Northwest Film Center)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #6 (February 10, 2009), page 16.

Jia Zhangke seamlessly mixes fact with fiction in 24 City

24 City

Directed by Jia Zhangke

Produced by Bandai Visual Company

Distributed by Cinema Guild

By Allison Rupp

From the opening scene of indie cinema darling Jia Zhangke’s 24 City it is apparent the camera is in the hands of an artist.

Hordes of workers, each indistinguishable from the rest in the same blue jumpsuits, pour through the gates of a factory in Chengdu, China on bicycles. While the grime on the gray-tiled factory walls appears so real it is almost palpable, the precise symmetry of the frame and the gliding motions of the cyclists recall a masterful painting.

The tension between art and reality defines 24 City, from the bleak landscapes captured by Jia’s elegant camerawork to the seamless combination of narratives told by real workers and actors portraying workers.

The pseudo-documentary depicts the history of Factory 420, a munitions plant in Chengdu built during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and now slated for conversion into a high-rise apartment and business complex.

Over the course of an hour and 52 minutes, nine characters — five of them real people and four professional actors — tell their personal stories of living and working in the factory that operated as a city in itself, with its own housing, schools, and recreation centers.

Some of the stories are simple renditions of lessons learned in the monotonous hard work at Factory 420, like He Xikun’s, a repairman who learns the value of recycling his tools from his boss.

Others, including Hao Dali (played by Liping Lu), relate the horrors viewers would expect on the topic of living in Mao’s China, such as a mother losing her child in a crowd of people then being forced back onto a boat bound for the munitions factory.

Each character poses for Jia, as if waiting for him to paint their portrait — within the hollowed-out remains of the factory, on a city bus, or in a beauty shop. For the most part, their words and movements feel natural, without drawing attention to the fact that not everything the viewer sees is real.

One exception is the performance by Joan Chen, a successful actress in both Chinese and Hollywood films, who plays a beautiful Shanghainese whose looks everyone in the factory compares to — guess who? — Joan Chen. Chen’s story and her self-conscious sniffling as she tells it call more attention to the artifice in 24 City than is appealing.

Interspersed with the narratives is Factory 420’s methodical destruction — from the machinery down to the light fixtures. Eventually nothing but rubble remains, and the workers themselves have been laid off for years or else retired.

Now they play game after game of mahjong, or sing old Communist anthems in choruses to no one in particular, or find other ways to pass the time.

"If you have something to do, you age more slowly," says one woman, who has taken up sewing.

One cannot help but feel these workers and their stories will be forgotten and buried just like the factory they spent most of their lives.

Unfortunately the film drags a bit in its final third and could benefit from a more concise ending. But Jia’s soundtrack carries 24 City from scene to scene in a nicely flowing history of Chinese pop music, from the orchestral tunes of the ’50s to the crooning contemporary heartthrobs.

Critics lauded 24 City at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and it seems safe to assume Jia’s artful new documentary style will stick.

24 City is screening February 13 and 15 as part of the 32nd annual Portland International Film Festival. Both showings are held at the Regal Broadway Metroplex, located at 1000 S.W. Broadway in Portland. For more information, or to view a complete schedule of films, visit <>.