China’s Memories on Film: Jia Zhangke’s “24 City”

History in the Present: The soon-to-be-demolished "Factory 420" in Jia Zhangke's "24 City"

The following are excerpts from an outstanding lengthy article on Jia Zhangke’s 24 City by Jiwei Xiao, Assistant Professor of Chinese language and literature at Fairfield University, originally published in Senses of Cinema.

In 2007, Jia Zhangke came across a piece of news that was at the time no longer newsworthy in China: Cheng Fa Group Co., a big aviation engine manufacturer (aka “Factory 420”), was going to sell its factory lot to a real-estate developer to build luxury high rises (named “24 City”) and relocate to the suburb.  Jia’s immediate reaction to the news was: what about the memory of those workers?  He sensed an enormous emotional and psychological loss behind the news. As with Still Life, Jia started this project as a documentary. The idea to add fiction only came later. A hundred interviews and many hours of footage later, Jia produced a rather idiosyncratic film: while its silent documenting of the last phase of the dismantling and relocation of the factory looks painterly and staged, the four “fictional” talking heads performed by professional actors appear realistic enough to be braided seamlessly with the other five authentic ones delivered by real factory workers…

"24 City" uses a deliberate green hue to match Jia Zhangke's memories of the past

In an interview with Jia Zhangke, Dudley Andrew asked the director to explain the meaning of the green tinge to the image in 24 City.  The hue, it turns out, was deliberately mixed into the colour palette of the film during postproduction. Why? Jia offered an intriguing answer. When he was a small child growing up in northern China in the late 1970s and 80s, he saw the green colour everyday and everywhere, often painted one metre high on walls of both private homes and public places—hospitals, offices, classrooms, and state-run factories. For Jia, green is apparently a very personal memory; yet instead of using the colour to express an individual sentiment, he “exhibits” it rather matter-of-factly by integrating it into the film texture…


24 City is impregnated with the tension between its documentary sincerity and fictional curiosity also at a deeper level. On the surface, the film is given to recording the interviewees’ immediate expressions of feelings: tears brimming in eyes, choke-ups, sniffling, and half-finished sentences. Static camera, long-takes, and spare and simple mise-en-scène allow us to watch with full attention emotions slowly unfolding on human faces. Yet, Jia is not satisfied with what direct cinema can reveal. He also wants to convey things that are not “speakable” or even “representable.”

To achieve the goal, he turns to inter-titled poetry, images of tableaux-vivant effects, non-diegetic music, and most intriguingly, silence. Once, the camera follows Joan Chen’s “Little Flower” character as she comes out of the factory auditorium, alone. Having just finished her rehearsal, she is still in her full opera costume and headgear. The camera stares at her back as she turns away and walks slowly towards the apartment buildings. Thanks to the silent long-take and the deep-focus shot, one notices the visual dissonance between the woman’s bright blue dress and the grayish dilapidated buildings. The irony between the tragic but interesting theatrical role she plays on stage and the disappointing life she lives by herself off stage is therefore in full view…

24 city documentary jia zhangke china

The prominence of Jia Zhangke’s films and the emergence of Chinese independent filmmaking to which his cinema belongs to have a lot to do with the so-called Rise of China, its “miraculous” economic transformation. It is not just that the institutional change of the film industry in the 1990s, propelled by the deepening marketization, proves to be liberating to Chinese independent filmmakers—“the withering of the state-owned studios stimulated film production by different groups of independents or semi-independents outside of, or partially overlapping with, the ‘system’.” The fact is, their films take on great significance because they deal with the complex and often unpleasant reality behind the China miracle. But if such seismic changes as massive demolition and dislocation can easily be turned into spectacular film images, filmmakers have an obligation and often a more challenging task to depict the human aspects of these changes—the life and history beneath the visible phenomenon. Memory is a well-chosen means of investigation and representation.

Read the full text of Jiwei Xiao’s essay at Senses of Cinema.


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