The Cinema Guild
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.