Welcome to 24 City. Three generations of Chinese men and women want to tell you their story. Hold your judgments; hear them out. The oldest generation, mostly retired, wants to know that it all meant something. Their factory is being destroyed, relocated, modernized — the factory they poured their souls into. Factory #420. The one that built the airplanes during the Chinese battle against “US imperialism” in Korea, that helped the Chinese Army beat back the Vietnamese troops attempting to stop Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. In its place, a real estate company is building a luxury apartment complex, 24 City, which they could never afford to live in. The youngest generation, meanwhile, wants a new life. Growing up, Su Na (Zhao Tao) never saw her mother working in the factory. She left home as soon as she turned 18, floating between boyfriends, jobs, apartments. One day she decides to visit her parents, but discovers she’s lost the key to their home. She heads to the factory to find her mother; when she enters, she’s shocked by the noise. It overwhelms her. Frantically, she searches for her mother, but all the employees look alike in their uniforms. In a corner she spots an old worker, doubled over, alone, sorting scraps of iron. It’s her mother, but at first Su can’t even tell if it’s a man or a woman. She flees the factory, crying. Somewhere in between lives a middle generation. They’ve raised (and lost) families at the factory. They’re too old to start over, but still young enough to dream of another life.
Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City organically blends interviews of actual factory workers with scripted interviews with actors. Neither sentimental nor overtly political, it’s both the filmmaker’s most emotional and mature work to date. More than the chronicle of a factory’s destruction, it’s about a people experiencing the end of Chinese socialism and the birth of Chinese capitalism. With several subjects, it takes some time for their story’s real meaning to become apparent. But it’s well worth the wait. Their memories and pains tell us so much about a country that seems to defy definition. Shot in high-def digital, the gray factory, mammoth machines, and pervasive smog threaten to engulf everything. But where Jia’s last HD effort, Still Life, embraced the beautiful wash of colors that the medium seems uniquely capable of producing, 24 City‘s cinematography vividly articulates the alienation and loss that connects its subjects. To that end, DP (and Jia regular) Yu Lik-wai (Still Life, The World, Platform) here seems more inclined to piercing close-ups than in Jia’s other films, hiding little from viewers: we see these people’s tears, scars, wrinkles. This intimacy extends even to the subject at the center of his film: in its run-down, pock-marked facade, Factory #420 likewise takes on a life of its own, communicating its own unique, nuanced, and moving story.