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Elegy and Its Resonance in a Vanishing World

24 City (Er Shi Si Cheng Ji), Dir. Jia Zhangke, IFC Center

Impossible juxtaposition. © Cinema Guild.
Impossible juxtaposition. © Cinema Guild.

Sergei Eisenstein once tried to stage a theatrical production in an actual factory, only to find the play overwhelmed by the factory present in full force before the spectators. The experience made him see why the stage must remain apart from reality and thus led him to the screen. Watching 24 City, I imagine director Jia Zhangke feeling similar awe in front of his real-world set and subject matter: the gigantic structure colloquially known as Factory 420—originally a top-secret fighter aircraft engine plant, with a history of half a century and tens of thousands of employees—now being dismantled to make room for a luxury condo complex named “24 City.” Time and again he leads us to face the imposing factory gate while masses of workers flood in or out. The camera travels through the backyard showcasing aircraft models, examines every part of the increasingly empty workshops, where 19th-century labor scenes are gradually replaced by demolition, until we stop at a crane behind a huge pile of rubble and experience a sudden, long silence. Occasionally the camera captures heartbreaking details: rain dropping on a piece of broken glass, a lone butterfly resting on a window pane, a young woman’s photo ID left in the pocket of her abandoned uniform. Through combined immensity and meticulousness, the factory acquires a sovereign presence, the root and nourishment of the reminiscences of different generations. Watching the machines being disassembled and removed and buildings demolished in this context, we realize that we are witnessing the disappearance of a world rendered so concretely. The resulting emptiness, revealed by Mr. Jia’s signature slow-traveling shots, is awe-inspiring. 

In contrast to the fifth generation’s grandiose national allegories (e.g. Ju Dou by Zhang Yimou, Farewell My Concubine by Chen Kaige), sixth-generation Chinese directors (e.g. Zhang Yuan, Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai) often portray young rebels and outcasts negotiating China’s headlong rush toward prosperity and globalized capitalism. Whether engaging in the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene in Beijing, teenage sex and violence, or even in some uncanny search for a mysterious mermaid-girl, their young characters seem utterly indifferent to the huge historical changes around them, living as they are in the trap of an intense present. One of their most direct encounters with history is Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006), which, in a French New Wave visual style, attributes the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to college students’ decadence and repressed libido. (It’s worth noting that, at its 20th anniversary, the Tiananmen incident is still a strictly forbidden topic in China.)

Jia Zhangke, a nomad among the sixth generation, takes as his subject the cultural incongruity and moral void caused by China’s awkward advance toward modernization and globalization, especially in the unprepared rural area and its residents. His characters are often caught in between the dramatic social changes, or, to quote David Denby, in a limbo “between the past and an unarrived future.” Featuring generous silence and long takes to keep real time intact, Jia’s works treat the characters’ indifference as both gesture and symptom.

Jia’s first three films are all set in his native province of Shanxi, portraying the inland and largely rural region in a state of incomprehension confronting the huge socio-economic reforms and the new rules they require. Xiao Wu (1997) follows a local pickpocket who finds himself struggling with a material-driven society, a political campaign of “strengthened attack on crimes,” and broken values. His search for identity—among the act (and art) of pickpocketing, the honor among thieves, a brief romance, and ties with his rural family—only reveals his lack of one. In Platform (2000) Jia uses the transformation of a state-owned Peasant Cultural Troupe to chart the immense economic and cultural reforms in the 1980s. The newly learned and eagerly promoted pop songs and dance steps provide the young performers a glimpse of the outside world, a sense of self, and an entrance into a cosmopolitan culture opened to them all of a sudden, but at the same time contrast sharply with the bleak mountains, desolate towns, and confused audiences around them. Starting with the youths’ longing for travel and escape, the film ends with their reluctant return to an unchanged but estranged hometown. Jia’s next work Unknown Pleasures (2002) grows out of a study of the derelict public spaces in the post-industrial wasteland of Datong, an inland coal-mining city. Big historical events—the glorious triumph of Beijing’s Olympic bid, the crash of a Chinese fighter airplane, the explosion of a local textile factory—regularly appear on TV to interrupt the characters’ daily lives, but fail to salvage them from their aimless existence, and often leave them no venue for self-expression. The World (2004), Jia’s first work set outside Shanxi, can be seen as a disillusioned sequel to Platform’s rapture and confusion. Young performers and migrant peasants work in a theme park where a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower looms over the Taj Mahal and everything is devoid of context. People are trapped in boundless isolation; “the world,” with its promise of mobility and connectedness, evades them.

Still Life (2006) marks a breakthrough for Jia in both subject matter and aesthetics. The film records how the two-thousand-year-old town Fengjie is devastated, and its residents displaced, to prepare for its eventual flooding for the Three Gorges hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River. While the setting and subject matter remain contemporary, the mood is resonantly ancient. The ever-flowing Yangtze River and the majestic mountains—symbols of transient human existence in the face of eternity in Chinese and many other cultures—stand in contrast to t-he destruction and displacement on the banks, but also give meaning to ages of human toil and endurance. Just as the two protagonists search far and wide for their lost spouses, the camera tenderly and obstinately captures traces of human existence in the vanishing world. Reward certificates are left on the wall of a half dismantled house; a bag of tea is found in a rusted locker; an archaeological team carefully excavates an ancient tomb from the Western Han Dynasty, circa 200 B.C. Performers appear again. The magicians, the acrobats, and the tightrope walker in the last shot recall their counterparts in La Strada and other early works by Fellini (one of Jia’s favorite directors). Wandering on the margins of the industrial society, the unmoored performers seem to possess the key to modern people’s imagination and lost roots. Their ancient crafts display the fluid boundaries between fantasy and reality, past and present.

24 City is another of Jia’s meditations on disappearance, oblivion, and the severed links between the past and present. Labor is again a central theme, and a major manifestation of life’s dignity in both Still Life and 24 City. Yet while Still Life sets human labor against immutable natural beauty, 24 City’s attitude toward labor, and the community formed around it, is at once more optimistic and more complex. As workers and their children recall the past glory and present decline of the factory, we witness the transition from pride in backbreaking work to an overwhelming pursuit of consumerism; from self-effacing collectivism to individual aspiration; from a more romantic, though harsher, industrial life to a less dangerous but somehow more soulless existence. The old days are remembered for the displacement (a first-generation woman worker couldn’t visit her faraway parents for 14 years after moving to Sichuan with the factory), harsh working conditions (workers made their own tools and used them until they were worn out), and appalling poverty (a retiree used to send her old working gloves to a sister in the countryside, who would recycle the yarn to make sweaters for her children), but the tenderness the workers attach to their memories indicates a more purposeful and integrated life. (Julia Kristeva cited an example about societal integrity after her visit to China in the mid-1970s: women workers were able to put their babies at the factory nursery school, and breast-feed them during specially-allowed breaks. Labor and motherhood then coexisted in harmony.) One marvels at how naturally the old generation can link every turn of their experience with their own and other people’s labor, with the fate of the factory and the history of the nation. An elder model worker, at the joy of his apprentice’s belated visit, can vividly recall his early days in the factory since 1959 despite his waning memory. An executive remembers the death of Premier Zhou En-lai by alluding to his experience as a ten-year-old naughty street boy.

As with the more taciturn characters in Still Life, much depends on what’s left unsaid. The old generation shows no apparent bitterness at the gravity of China’s changing that largely ignored their contributions in its eager lurch into the new. Their quiet, unspoken pathos proves more genuine and more reveberating. Jia protests history’s oblivion through a long, melancholic sequence of a derelict “cultural room for retirees,” probably the only place left for the old generation. He also paces the film to commemorate the past integrated life. The first few days in the film are the most complete and distinguishable, where days evolve into nights with labor scenes punctuating the interviews at regular intervals. Time unfolds at its natural pace.

With the narrators becoming younger and more estranged from their parents’ lifestyle, the film moves faster and replaces labor scenes with scenes of demolition. The topics of reminiscence gradually shift to youth (“the lying days of my youth” as the film quotes Yeats), missed chances, and lost dreams. As the young experience more choice in life, they also express more confusion in their direction. A middle-aged beauty nicknamed “Little Flower” embodies the exciting but turbulent shift from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Deng’s free market economy; now, past her prime, she values her freedom but laments her loneliness. A TV host in his thirties recalls the excitement at seeing the “outside world” and the resulting distaste for manual labor. With his announcement of “another crucial step in the urbanization of our city,” the once self-contained world of the factory has been reduced to an inconspicuous corner on an elaborate architectural design model filled with skyscrapers. Once again, people are caught in limbo, but the sense of confusion and unnamable loss expressed by the younger generation makes them equally belong to the ruins that once were their parents’ site of glory.

The last interviewee appears in an uncanny juxtaposition typical of Mr. Jia. As some peasants bend under the weight of the wood on their backs, shadowed by the tall, modern buildings of Chengdu behind them, a gleaming new white Volkswagen with a fashionable young woman behind the wheels destabilizes the tableau. In a flash we are reminded just how new this world is and yet how intimately linked it remains to the world it is displacing. The complexity makes any national allegory impossible, but Jia’s attitude is neither pessimistic nor satirical. Generations of people were left behind, their past swept away by the rapidly, and sometimes aimlessly, advancing history, but they form a community and continuity in shared emotional narrative (the stories told by professional actors blend harmoniously with those of real-life figures), in the daily labor scenes interspersed between their stories, and in the eerie beauty of the industrial landscape that disappears before our eyes to become part of a nation’s collective memory. The last narrator, a yuppie 27-year-old “shopper,” may have lost her key home, but she claims herself to be a “worker’s daughter,” and walks along the same path as two earlier interviewees did. As her narrative is gradually devoured by the approaching dusk and the urban sound and fury, she too becomes part of the disappearance and the continuity.


Lu Chen

LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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