Jia Zhang-ke’s recent work hasn’t exactly been the cheeriest of oeuvres, but 24 City has the stench of death hanging over it more than anything he’s yet attempted. Ostensibly a portrait via interviews of the closing of a military factory complex to make way for a luxury condo (a ready-made metaphor for China’s capitalist changeover that Jia doesn’t have to nudge too hard at), this is yet another one of Jia’s inscrutable little exercises in melding the staged and the vérité. It’s a distinction virtually without meaning in every film he’s made from Still Life onwards, but only now have western critics given out little squeals of protest. The charge seems roughly along the lines that—because well over the half of the film is unblinking, frankly enervating head-on interview footage—sneaking in professional actors among the real subjects undermines the whole project needlessly. How to know when to be moved and when to be skeptical when you’re not sure whose testimony is “authentic”?
I’m really unsure why this is suddenly coming up, except perhaps that the dividing line is much harder to spot this time. Still Life had its virtuoso blend of real workers and some actors demolishing real walls in real time; it seemed pretty clear, in contrast, that the building which suddenly turned into a UFO and took off was not real. Similarly, no one was going to mistake the deliberately bifurcated structure of Useless (abandoning its subject, fashion designer Ma Ke, literally at a bend in the road) for a sudden accident. Unless you’re going to recognize Joan Chen right off the bat though (and frankly, it’s been a while, though sharper-eyed viewers may have less trouble), it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.
Which honestly doesn’t seem like a problem. No one bats an eye when Werner Herzog flat-out stages stuff to pursue “ecstatic truth.” I guess the problem is that Jia’s films are politically engaged, which presumably means he’s morally required to stick to the straight and narrow. This seems silly; anyone being truthful with themselves would have to concede it’s Jia’s formalist chops that have propelled him to the top of the festival circuit, not his politics. (NYFF, not Human Rights.) While these aren’t entirely absent from 24 City, they stop being a factor the instant the interviews start. The footage of the factories in their last days is quite spooky. Early on, with the workers swarming through a staircase on their way to a mandatory assembly on the subject of their imminent phasing out, they walk through a hallway senselessly lit by both fluorescent lights and an out-of-place chandelier. These are buildings that have been around way too long, and their internal juxtapositions of crap that’s piled up over the years are kind of fascinating. Now all that stuff—some 50 years of Chinese history—will be wiped away in one fell swoop for a bright new future of apartments for an upwardly mobile new generation, a group of people who literally couldn’t have existed in China 20 years ago (and who certainly wouldn’t have been encouraged).
The ghosts of the past persist though. In small recreation rooms, men shuffle by, their oxygen tanks and cigarettes equally at the ready. An old worker questions a young woman about how in the world she’s allowed to wear make-up on the job; the woman says international corporations expect it. Make-up comes up more than once; it’s the kind of seemingly trivial signifier Jia knows how to exploit. And that’s the film’s trick. Much of it is frankly deadly viewing, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone unfamiliar with Jia choosing to start here; it could turn you off for life. But for anyone in the mood for a melancholy immersion in the ultra-physical decay of old-school communism’s buildings and bodies, it’ll linger beyond the tedium of actually watching.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.