24 City (Er Shi Si Cheng Ji)
How does that Chinese proverb go? ‘If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow.’ Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Zhang-ke Jia has been standing straight and telling it like it is for years. This brave and frequently brilliant director has been detailing the communal and individual effect of social and economic shifts in contemporary China for over a decade now. His deeply nuanced style mixes minimalism and realism in search of documentary truth. His previous fictional features – Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life – are unflinching dissections of how policies honed by communism, and later by globalisation, have affected China’s youth, arts community, childbirth, the tourist industry and those disaffected by industrial progress.
24 City is more of the same, but no less entrancing for all that. Blending fictional and documentary storytelling techniques Jia follows three generations of characters from the sub-provincial southwestern city of Chengdu. His reason for doing so is because they all worked at a state owned airplane engine factory, which is to be closed down, and turned into apartment blocks. Their stories are ordinary but somehow poignant and oddly tragic. The thing that defined their connection is defunct, where does that leave them?
Like all Jia’s films 24 City is a slow, challenging and frequently difficult film with a bland, low budget, digital aesthetic that connects it more to the work of cinema experimentalists Chantal Akerman, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow than to anything on the modern radar. It is also deeply textual (at one point actress Joan Chen, playing a factory employee, is seen watching herself in Zheng Zhang’s 1980 propaganda film Little Flower). 24 City is as anthropologically rich and emotive a work as this remarkable director has ever produced. If you have the patience this is worth your time.
GFT, Glasgow, Wed 2 & Thu 3 Jun; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 4–Tue 8 Jun.