The Cinema GuildZhao Tao as Su Na in 24 City

When the full effect hit, about twelve hours after I had seen his 24 City at the New York Film Festival, it occurred to me that Jia Zhangke must now be the most important filmmaker in the world. Whether he’s the most inventive, entertaining, moving, thoughtful or visually enthralling is another question. I think he might well be in the running in all those categories; but among other first-rate filmmakers, he clearly surpasses everyone in the scale of his subject matter, which is nothing less than the biggest economic, social and physical transformation taking place in the world today, in the most populous of all countries. When you see the earth from outer space, it’s said, the only visible human artifact is the Great Wall of China. When the early twenty-first century is someday viewed from a comparable distance, the main artifacts to be seen may be the films of Jia Zhangke.

In 24 City, he addresses his great subject by recording the decommissioning and demolition of a vast munitions plant in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, after the property has been sold to a private developer. In place of Factory 420 will stand an upscale, glassy, mixed-use complex, with only a couple of the old brick structures retained to lend a touch of picturesque nostalgia. Jia’s documentation of this development is the panoramic side of the film, with tracking shots that sidle through the echoing sheds, long-focus shots that fill the screen with a sea of workers’ faces, crane shots that rise over acres of rubble where the foundations of the new complex are dug. The intimate side of the film, conceived as a series of interviews between subjects and an off-camera questioner, gives you the stories of middle-aged people who once worked in the factory and of young people who grew up in its dormitories and schools–and these segments, by and large, are fictional, scripted by Jia and Zhai Yongming and performed by professional actors.

You might think of these pseudo-documentary monologues as half a dozen self-contained melodramas–so ripe is each with heartbreak and disillusionment–if it weren’t for the utter naturalism of Jia’s mise-en-scène and the tact with which he places his camera, making sure not to crowd his subjects and then taking one more step back. The weary but enduring Hao Dali (played by Lu Liping) sits before the casement window in her bedroom, where potted plants are arranged prettily on the ledge, and recounts how decades ago the government shipped her to Chengdu to work in the factory–during the voyage, she explains, she was forced to leave behind her son. For Little Flower, by contrast, the abiding loss is her hope of marriage. Posed gracefully in the chair of a beauty parlor, with the bustle of a street passing outside the window, she explains the long sequence of accidents, misunderstandings and hardships that have led her to face middle age alone, even though everyone in the factory used to say she looked just like the star of The Little Flower and The Last Emperor, Joan Chen. No wonder–she’s played by Joan Chen.

The youngest of the fictional characters, Su Na (played by Zhao Tao), has escaped factory life entirely, having set herself up as a personal shopper for rich women. She’s modern, fashionable, confident about making money–but the bottom drops out of her voice when she remembers her sole experience of industry, on the occasion when she went looking for her mother amid countless, seemingly identical workers on a deafening factory floor. Su Na tells this tale while standing against the windows of an abandoned schoolroom. A vista of skyscrapers and highway ramps stretches into the distance behind her; and as her story pours out, twilight begins to gather.

But then, darkness is always falling in 24 City. Monologue scenes keep fading to black and then resuming, as if the whole world had shut its eyes for a moment to concentrate; daytime sequences keep alternating with lonely nocturnal excursions through the city. This is the rhythm of things being made and unmade, of lives being gathered and scattered–and in the grand sweep of Jia’s documentary, it’s a fifty-year pulse: astounding, ironic, futile, cruel. Yet in the stories that make up Jia’s fictions, going in sequence from the oldest character to the youngest, each moment is full in itself–often with sadness, certainly, but also with pride, resilience and (most of all, most astonishingly) love.

24 City won’t open theatrically in the United States until early 2009. You should know about it now, though. This film is news, of the sort that festivals are meant to bring.

There is also a cinema that does not aspire to tell you the news–or, rather, one whose idea of an urgent flash would be: Sun Sets Again, Splatters Sky With a Thousand Colors!; Woman Has Sad Memory–and Looks Beautiful!; Tests Confirm: Loud Music, Sweeping Choreography Go Together! These are the sort of excited bulletins that come in minute by minute in Wong Kar wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, a New York Film Festival selection that is opening right now. Whether you think this picture, too, qualifies as important will depend on the value you place on a good swoon.

As the “Redux” in the title suggests, this 2008 feature brings back in new form an earlier, little-seen picture by Wong, Ashes of Time (1994), the first in his career to come unmoored from the known world. His earlier movies–As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express–had been less concerned with plot than with mood, character and suggestive details; but they nevertheless took place in a recognizable Hong Kong at an identifiable moment. With Ashes of Time, though, Wong floated away into the elemental, long-ago realm of Chinese martial arts stories. It was hard, at the time, to see what he’d gained. (I had a chance in 1994 to watch a cut of the movie and thought he’d gotten lost in a genre where he didn’t belong.) But as Wong returned to fantasy worlds in later films–the science-fiction bullet train of 2046, the oneiric Argentina of Happy Together–it became clear that he was looking for settings where emotions could drift more freely and be explained less. You might say he has found another of those settings in one of his own movies, having realized that he could recut Ashes of Time, alter its colors, layer on fresh music and come out with a new experience, one that exists outside history (in terms of its story) and also outside chronology (in terms of its place in Wong’s filmography).

Sound confusing? Then wait till you get to the plot. Narrated in first-person voiceover, Ashes of Time Redux presents a year’s worth of the memories of a legendary swordsman, Ouyang (the beautiful, late Leslie Cheung), who lives alone in a shack in the western desert and makes his living as an agent who hires assassins. As the seasons go by–each one’s passing being marked by a reading from an almanac–the dashing but embittered Ouyang tries to get involved as little as possible with the people who visit him. These include a jilted, mad murderess princess who dresses up as her brother (Brigitte Lin); a homesick swordsman who is doomed to go blind (Tony Leung Chiu Wai); a poor peasant girl (Charlie Young) who doggedly tries to hire a killer, though she can pay only in eggs; and a shoeless, camel-riding swordsman (Jacky Cheung) with a surprisingly chivalrous nature. Most important among all these visitors is an old friend, the swordsman Huang (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who offers Ouyang a magic wine that will wipe away his memory. Who gave him the wine? Why was it given? Huang can’t remember. He tried it, and it worked.

Eventually, you do find out what Huang once knew; but more important, you come to understand why Ouyang chooses to go on remembering. Despite all its narrative loops, and all its backstory intersections among the characters, Ashes of Time Redux delivers a couple of very simple but persuasive morals: it’s good to go on bearing heartbreaking memories, so long as they’re embodied in an image of Maggie Cheung posed at the window of a seaside cottage; and it’s better to risk your life for a payment of one egg than to be a selfish wiseass.

I list these lessons (which are highly characteristic of Wong) so you’ll know the emotions and sensations of Ashes of Time Redux are grounded in something real, even if it’s not an era or locale. That said, Wong prefers not to linger over reasons. To explain his film and perhaps justify it, he offers only a quotation from Buddhist scripture and a few astrological predictions from the almanac. The rest is salmon sands (and saffron, and canary), skies that melt into bands of turquoise and violet, faces that shimmer with light reflected off water, lakes that shoot upward at the flash of a brandished sword. This is a fairy tale for melancholy adults, a magic show for the disillusioned. It happens in its own good time.

When Mike Leigh made his reputation in the 1980s, he was known as British cinema’s fiercest and funniest chronicler of the Thatcher era. It wouldn’t have occurred to his admirers back then that he, too, might someday make films about emotions wholly unprompted by political circumstance. But in Happy-Go-Lucky (another New York Film Festival selection now opening in theaters), Leigh has cooked up a pure conflict of temperaments. If the picture weren’t clearly set in today’s London, you’d think it was a seventeenth-century drama about the humors.

Gangly, long-faced Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, a single, 30-year-old kindergarten teacher living in north London, whose perpetual expression of open-mouthed wonder and endless supply of silly jokes are perfectly suited to her classroom, though they might make her a little vulnerable anywhere else. She hardly seems to notice, though, being literally the bouncy type, whose favorite form of exercise is trampoline. Poppy is so chronically cheerful that she can’t even stay upset when her bicycle is stolen. She just signs up for driving lessons–and so comes to share a tight space with Scott (Eddie Marsan), her clenched, hunched, glowering teacher, whose spluttered instructions leave a bitter residue on his goatee. She goofs behind the wheel and tries to perk him up. He rails against her careless attitude, her high-heeled boots (a suspiciously sensitive topic for him), all dark-skinned people (whom she likes just fine) and the omni-oppressive They. Most normal people would flee after the first lesson. Poppy sticks it out, week after week, as if to see whether she can jolly Scott into a better frame of mind. Though hardly a self-assertive person, she tacitly enters a contest of wills.

Moviegoers who have survived a live encounter with Mike Leigh may be tempted to think of this situation as an allegory of the rehearsal studio, in which Scott is a self-portrait of the director and Poppy is an actor who resists being broken. More generally, you could see Happy-Go-Lucky as a film about education: what changes in the process (the student’s level of skill) and what does not (the essential character of student and teacher alike). This is, obviously, an apolitical view of the world–but that’s not the big surprise. The greater novelty is that Leigh has come down for once on the side of sunniness and good will. If that makes Happy-Go-Lucky one of his minor films, it also makes it one of his airiest.

Lance Hammer’s extraordinary debut feature, Ballast, is in large measure a landscape film, set in a hot place during a cold season: the Mississippi Delta in winter. From the opening shot, which trails after a young boy running through the fields, the widescreen images dwell on flat, lonely horizons, leafless trees, vast flocks of birds covering the sky, highways stretching ahead in the rain and long, long freight trains rolling past.

The main figures within this landscape are African-American: a man (Michael J. Smith Sr.) who owns a little property; a woman (Tarra Riggs) who scrubs toilets for a living; and her 12-year-old son (JimMyron Ross), who mostly plays video games and tries to hang with the older gang. Linked at first by mourning and mutual suspicion, and by the boy’s clumsy attempts at criminality, these characters nevertheless manage to put together a little hope for themselves out of a roadside store and a collection of textbooks.

The performances, by a predominantly nonprofessional cast, are quietly impeccable. The narrative: oblique, unpredictable and moving. The film: highly recommended.