I recently returned from a memorable two-week vacation in southwestern China: highlights included eating fried maggots at a wedding reception (they had a surprisingly satisfying crunch akin to well-cooked french fries); being one of the last foreigners in Tibet before the government kicked everyone out prior to celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party; and watching panda “porn” videos meant to stimulate the residents of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Chengdu is also the site of a film that recently debuted on Fandor while I was on vacation: 24 City by Jia Zhangke, whom many (yours truly included) consider to be the best director working in China today. So it was a lucky coincidence that the film started streaming on Fandor just about when I was actually making a visit to 24 City, the former military factory-turned-luxury apartment complex whose epic history is recounted in the film.
Jia was approached to direct 24 City by the developers of the complex, who doubtless were hoping for the internationally acclaimed director to lend a touch of arthouse glamour to their property. What Jia turned out may very well be the most subversive real estate commercial ever made. Jia used 24 City not so much as an occasion to celebrate the ritzy new development but to mourn the passing of what was being demolished and replaced: one of the city’s most celebrated factory communes and five decades’ worth of history that it embodied. In a remarkable stroke that goes well beyond typical documentary, Jia uses both real life residents and famous Chinese actors like Joan Chen to tell the story of 24 City (formerly the site of Factory 420, later to be named, in its first privatized incarnation, as the Chengfa Group), as if to acknowledge that China’s storied past was no longer real, but could only be re-enacted in memory.
To see the 24 City apartments now is to behold a different kind of fiction trying to work itself into reality: a fantasy of an idealized, forward-looking lifestyle in China, moving ever higher upward both literally and figuratively. The following photos that I took (alternating with stills from Jia’s film) illustrate the aspiration to affluence that has captured the imaginations of hundreds of millions of Chinese today. It’s a far cry from the humble, vividly moving stories of forbearance and sacrifice shared by many of the subjects of Jia’s films.
Original photos taken by Yuqian Yan and Kevin B. Lee.
Kevin B. Lee is the Editor of Fandor. His email is kevin *at* fandor *dot* com.
WATCH 24 CITY ON FANDOR