NYFF: 24 City
Jia Zhangke's 24 City opens with a decaying factory in Chengdu, ancient machines churning out red-hot pliable metals. The subtitles read, "Hand me the rifle, Commandante!". Ah...there's nothing like a projection snafu to rile loyal NYFF patrons! The subs running beneath the image were from Che, a sneak peek for us lucky few in attendance. Hackles were raised, one disgusted gentleman booed with revolutionary lust, but eventually calm prevailed, and 24 Che returned to its City.
The movie is an addendum of sorts to Still Life, another attempt to document the evanescence of Communist social and architectural edifices. Still Life submerged the city of Fengjie, while 24 City tears down munitions Factory 420 (to be replaced by luxury high-rises). Both mix fiction with documentary (24 tipping more towards the latter).
The mode is simple, almost Ken Burnsian in its emphasis on talking heads, although Jia gives his subjects far more time to elaborate their reminiscences and remembrances, and evocatively frames them in the crumbling facility. The question is recreating the past through the word, an oral history rather than Still Life's more visually weighted mode. Jia interviewed over 100 employees and relatives of the factory, and mixes in a few staged sequences (including fake memories from Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao). The idea about how we create and maintain our history is the subterreanean question here, but the surface is straight-up storytelling, and the film ebbs and flows based on the imaginations and memories of the interviewees. So it jumps from banal to amusing to profound (an image of a tool being the product of an endless history of hands was especially resonant), all just a result of the nature of the project.
Minor in the best sense, it burrows its way deep into its small plot of land, and comes up with offhand beauties (the final shot of Chengdu, the dust from a collapsed wall illustrating the ebb of time found in a Yeats quote) that expands the impact of this small-scale work. Not a career capper, but a fascinating sidetrack.