Following “Still Life” and “Useless,” documentary and fictional artifice are combined ever more egregiously by Mainland helmer Jia Zhangke in “24 City,” in which the demolition of a state-owned factory for a new development becomes a tool to reminisce on 50 years of modern Chinese history. Result is far more accessible than Jia’s previous two pictures, with moments of genuine emotion by the real-life interviewees. But technique of interweaving name actors into the docu fabric smacks of auteurism for the sake of it, and pic says nothing new or revealing that hasn’t been said in countless other movies and docus. Further fest play beckons.
Factory was set up in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, in 1958 to produce aviation engines, and became known as Factory 420, after its military security internal code number. Workers were shipped there from all over China, and, as one character notes, the place was virtually a self-contained town of its own, with its own living quarters, cinema, sports facilities, school and so on, with little contact with the local denizens of Chengdu.
Its fortunes declined during the ’80s, when it switched to making consumer goods. Now it’s being almost entirely demolished — like many crumbling state-owned factories in China — to make room for new apartment blocks, business centers and a theme park called 24 City.
History emerges through straight-to-camera interviews with nine characters. Some are genuine, like repairman He Xikun, who misses the old days of self-sufficiency and companionship, and movingly visits his old boss, now senile, after many years. Or Hou Lijun, who first moved there as a young girl with her mother and stayed for 14 years, and remembers the first layoffs as economic realities started to bite.
However, after the opening half-hour, and with no warning beyond the audience’s ability to spot the faces, Jia and co-writer Zhai Yongming start including fictional characters played by known thesps. First up is Hao Dali (Lu Liping), who tells of her long journey there by boat; later is Gu Minhua (Joan Chen), from Shanghai, who tells of her first love affair there.
Finally, there’s a TV presenter, Zhao Gang (Chen Jianbin), who inspects the model of the new development; and twentysomething Su Na (regular Jia muse, Zhao Tao), who went to school in Factory 420 and now works as a “shopper” for local rich women with no time to go to Hong Kong themselves. Other characters are played by no-names or members of Jia’s crew.
Bottom line is that the scripted characters, though fitted out with plenty of wordage, end up saying much less — and in an obviously actorly way — about history and change than the real-life interviewees. Lu, a fine actress, comes off the best and most natural, though even she can’t hide her thesping tics; weakest and showiest of all is Chen as a sassy Shanghainese now whiling away her time in an opera troupe, while Zhao’s modern miss is little more than a cliche on legs.
Jia’s reason for mixing real and fictional characters is that “as far as I’m concerned, history is always a blend of facts and imagination.” But the effect is to elevate the former at the expense of the latter, and thus the whole emotional fabric of the film. The fact that the viewer is watching “a Jia Zhangke film” seems more important than the subject itself, and one moment, when Chen’s character says she was dubbed “Little Flower” because she looked like that character in a Joan Chen movie, is pure film buffery at the service of nothing.
Strongest moments are when the pristine HD lensing by Hong Kong’s Yu Lik-wai (a Jia regular) and Wang Yu, and warm string music by Yoshihiro Hanno, take over in montages showing the gradual dismantling of the factory. These immaculately composed, often painterly images of state-owned and modern commercial China say much more than the staged and scripted interviews.
Though rarely as grindingly slow as much of Jia’s recent work, film would benefit from trimming by 15-20 minutes, with Zhao’s section a prime candidate for excision.