Mixing and Manipulating China’s History: Jia Zhangke’s “24 City”

Ghosts of the City: A Historic Generation Fades Out in Jia Zhangke's "24 City"

This article originally appeared in Cineaste, September 2009.

Throughout his formidable career, Jia Zhangke has delighted in blurring the boundary between documentary and fiction, whether incorporating direct cinema technique into narrative features like Still Life or The World, or staging scenes in his documentaries Dong and Useless. But 24 City, an oral history project transformed into performance art, is such an overt commingling of fiction and documentary that it amounts to Jia’s most conceptual work to date. A peculiar hybrid of real and fake, 24 City charts the history of the Chengfa Work Group, a soon-to-be demolished military manufacturing compound, recollected over eight interviews with the factory’s residents, four of whom are played by professional actors.

Despite the formal challenges of such a project, it is his most commercially successful release in China, having earned over 1 million yuan in its opening week. It’s a remarkable success given that films of a documentary or social realist nature have proven to be box office poison, as Chinese audiences typically flock to the escapist entertainments of Zhang Yimou or Feng Xiaogang.  As such, 24 City represents an important intersection between independent social realist and commercial filmmaking in china, as well as a crossroads for Jia as a filmmaker, straddling these seemingly irreconcilable worlds.

Documentaries are opening people's eyes to China's transformation

Given the documentary properties of 24 City, it’s worth considering the film within the context of the Chinese independent documentary movement, which, despite languishing in relative obscurity both domestically as well as on the international festival circuit, has emerged over  the course of this decade as the vital force within contemporary Chinese cinema. Aided by the widespread availability of digital film technology and no shortage of fascinating subject matter, the hundreds of documentaries produced in just the past few years convey a nation opening its eyes to itself.  These works amount to a collective effort to address an increasing sense of alienation with both the nation’s past and present, due to the metastatic changes taking place in all aspects of Chinese society.

The results approach surreality: Wang Bing’s industrial wasteland epic West of the Tracks, whose imagery resembles post-apocalyptic sci-fi; Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town, a phantasmagoria of Christians, dirt poor farmers and juvenile delinquents vying for the soul of a dead city; and Yan Yu and Li Yifan’s Before the Flood, a sprawling chronicle of mass migration forced by the Three Gorges Dam project, filmed in the same locations as Jia Zhangke’s Still Life. In Still Life, Jia inserted imagery such as a UFO and a trapeze artist because, as he has said, it wouldn’t be any more surreal than what’s already there. The independent documentary filmmakers work from the same socially conscious impulse, but with an opposite aesthetic philosophy best summed up by neo-realist pioneer Roberto Rossellini: “Things are there; why manipulate them?”

This imperative to document unmitigated truth is all the more vital when contrasted with the visions of China that mainstream Chinese society prefers to embrace (assuming that they’re even aware that they have a choice, given that independent documentaries are accessible only through a small festival circuit and pirated DVD or fileshare). Instead of presenting issues such as growing class inequality and poverty among rural and migrant workers, the mainstream media focuses on spectacles designed to present a national image of progress, heroism and hope. Recent examples include the entrepreneurial game show “Win in China,” media coverage of rescue and relief efforts following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and Zhang Yimou’s lavish production of the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Singing for the Nation in "24 City"

24 City begins with its own opening ceremony, though in actuality it is to commemorate the closing of a decades-old factory belonging to the Chengfa Work Group. Seated in an auditorium with the camera facing them, the group members join in a chorus of “Singing For Our Nation,” a song which was also featured in Zhang’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies. In this instant, these singer/workers are not only the subjects of the documentary camera, but performers and spectators of their own historical event. From the beginning, the idea of the nation, especially nationhood as a performative act, is introduced, and it preoccupies this film like no other Jia film.  Their initial monolithic appearance of collective unity for the sake of the nation, presented with documentary realism, will be picked apart and played with over the course of the film.

One striking aspect about 24 City is that, unlike Zhang’s Olympic spectacle, it’s a view that emphasizes individuals and their specific relationships to the nation. At most, the sense of national unity woven by their personal stories is patchwork, fraught by ellipses in time as well as differing personal perspectives. For all of his fictional interventions, Jia insists on filming each oral testimony with a singular integrity. There are no flashback re-enactments, not even cutaways to symbolic imagery; each interview is presented virtually intact, save for occasional cuts to black that function like stanza or paragraph breaks.



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At first glance these static interviews seem thoroughly uncinematic (if by cinematic one means visually dynamic). But Jia rests his faith on each interviewee to conjure an entire era through their first-person recollections, and the results are indeed vivid. Workers forging their own tools, tearful layoff parties, schoolboy showdowns interrupted by news of Premier Zhou Enlai’s death: between the viewer and the screen a third space opens, of history reanimated by anecdote. While leaving these testimonies largely intact, between them Jia inserts footage of the factory gradually being dismantled, as if to underscore the importance of these personal testimonies in a society set on demolishing the physical traces of its own history to make way for the future.

Hou Li Jun gives a breathtaking monologue in "24 City."

The most emotionally affecting monologue is delivered by a laid-off factory worker named Hou Lijun.  In a breathless eight minutes, she covers a lifetime of how the factory affected her life from childhood: family separation due to government reassignment; getting laid off after decades of dutiful service; and the subsequent struggle to provide for her family. She relates all of this without much dramatic emphasis, but a surging cadence, as if the traumatic buildup of historical memory were pouring out from her all at once. There’s no other testimony that matches it, certainly not the monologue by actress Lu Liping that almost immediately follows. Lu relies on melodramatic devices like an IV drip prop and a tearful recollection about leaving her lost child in order not to miss the boat for her factory assignment.

Actress Lu Liping's performance blends documentary with melodrama

But the metafictional design of the film triggers speculation: is there an intentional comparison being drawn between Hou’s authenticity and Lu’s affectation? After Lu’s monologue is finished, Jia cuts to a shot of her watching a propaganda war movie, blaring the same patriotic ideology of self-sacrifice that compelled her character to abandon her child for the sake of fulfilling her national duty. The moment again underscores the influence of national, ideologically driven narratives on individual lives. Jia’s film, with its numerous displays of unabashed emotion triggered by historical memory, utilizes this same narrative approach that elicits sentimental nationalist feeling, while at the same time bringing it to critical attention.

Joan Chen plays a woman named Xiao Hua...

Similar issues of social programming woven into personal memoir appear in Jia’s most self-reflexive turn, a monologue by actress Joan Chen as Xiao Hua, a factory worker named after a character played by Chen in one of her earliest film roles. While the self-reflexive invoking of Chen’s performative history brings critical scrutiny to her present role, Jia inserts additional metafictional elements within the history of Chen’s character and how they led to her life’s outcome. Xiao Hua’s first love was for a dashing fighter pilot pictured on a factory wall, whose death is reported by the factory officials and used for propagandistic motivation. We never find out if the pilot’s story or even his identity was ever real or just a fabrication. Another relationship is ruined when a third party circulates love letters forged in her name. As if to rebut Rossellini, Jia emphasizes the way people’s experience of reality is inherently manipulated by various forces: personal, societal, national.

...which was also the name of the character that made her a star 30 years before.

For all of Jia’s playful provocations with representation, some Chinese audiences found the blending of documentary and fiction distracting from the film’s impact. As one blogger wrote: “The documentary style requires the stars to perform with a mask.  Truth is concealed rather than revealed.  The professional actors can never escape from being recognized, and their stardom becomes a vital disadvantage in performing their roles.” On the other hand, another blogger maintained that foreign audiences, unable to discern the actors from the real subjects, would be better able to appreciate the fundamental truth of the film’s characters. Another line of criticism found the loose string of narratives hard to follow, and therefore concluded that the film wasn’t pitched enough to a mainstream audience (though again, the box office returns may indicate otherwise).

It’s interesting to take the two criticisms, the use of professional actors and disregard for a mainstream audience, in tandem, given that Jia in all likelihood cast the professional actors for the very purpose of boosting his film’s commercial appeal.  Such a choice amounts to a referendum on the effectiveness of the Chinese social realist independent film movement, given its marginal status. Like 24 City, the best narrative Chinese films of recent years, all of whom are independent productions, have engaged in a complicated inquiry into the represenatation of Chinese reality: Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide, Ying Liang’s The Other Half, Emily Tang’s A Perfect Life. But, as with their documentary counterparts, none of them are accessible to their domestic audience except through illegal channels.

If the idea of representing a true national reality is a core objective of Chinese independent cinema, present circumstances of distribution beg the question, to whom is this representation directed to? The answer may determine to what extent 24 City is an act of compromise betraying the independent movement for commercial success versus an act of negotiation in delivering the independent movement to a wider audience.

Whatever the case may be, one should not necessarily let Jia off the hook by ascribing him with noble intentions; the facts of the production complicate the matter. Not only was 24 City sponsored and approved by the Chinese state film bureau, the film was partially financed by the commercial development that replaced the outmoded factory and after which the film is named. This commercial context behind the film’s production does not merely call into question the nature of Jia’s project as a critique of nationalist sentiment, especially in the era of commercial industry, but also the extent to which Jia’s film ultimately reconstitutes and repackages nationalism for mass consumption.

Zhao Tao expresses dreams for a happy capitalist future - is she doing so ironically?

The concern lies in the film’s climactic monologue, performed by Jia regular Zhao Tao as a young, upwardly mobile single woman who buys luxury items for wealthy women. A full participant in the nascent Chinese consumer society actively promoted by the state, her idea of success is to accumulate wealth and be a successful businesswoman. Her monologue then shifts to an anecdote in which she discovers and internalizes the hardships of her factory worker parents.  In effect, she’s an onscreen surrogate for younger Chinese viewers of 24 City, giving them occasion to experience and process history as a legacy of sacrifice, and tinging the comforts they presently enjoy with filial guilt. She concludes by resolving to provide her family with material comforts, including an apartment in the 24 City luxury complex where their factory once stood. With her final line, “I can do it. I’m the daughter of a worker,” the film makes an improbable link between the collectivist sacrifices of China’s communist past and its present capitalist ambitions.

This final monologue has reportedly left Chinese audiences in tears, which can only please the state government in its current program to promote consumerism and personal wealth accumulation for the benefit of national GDP. It is at this point that the film no longer functions as a social critique, but as the opposite. That is, unless the viewer has retained the critical distance towards onscreen representation that Jia has steadily programmed throughout the film.  That this final tearjerker interview is delivered by an actress should be one marker of self-reflexivity. Does her character’s weeping at the end over her family’s story amount to Jia shedding crocodile tears over such contemporary narrative formulas for social programming?

Nonetheless, the fact remains that those Chinese audiences cried, presumably out of sincere sadness for a glorified past of heroic struggle, and irrespective of how nationalist feeling has been manipulated by state concerns throughout China’s 20th century history, even up to the present. Zhao Tao’s monologue presents us with a new dilemma in trying to decipher the intent of Jia’s evolving cinema, not to mention its effects on his audience. The dilemma has everything to do with his current project of attracting a wider audience to his critical approach towards the ideological and social crises affecting China.  It’s as if Jia were a magician conscientiously revealing the secrets behind the tricks of ideological promotion through storytelling and performance; yet he risks captivating them with that magic all the same.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Keyframe on Fandor.


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