Friday, June 4, 2010

24 City

I admit it, I'm stumped. Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City (2008) is as perplexing a moviegoing experience as I can recall, but not in a fun, David Lynch sort of way. My immediate, knee-jerk reaction would be to say that it's a bad film by a major director--talky, boring, "uncinematic"--except that, so far as I can tell, it does exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Therefore, the problem must be with me, not the movie. Maybe all those commercial movies I saw in Montreal have ruined me for the sort of demanding festival fare that I thought I was craving back when I was complaining about how traditional and safe everything was, even so-called art movies like Greenberg (2010) and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). Or perhaps being back in Nova Scotia has destroyed my ability to take pleasure in anything. On the other hand, a film that does what it sets out to isn't inherently interesting (take Chloe [2009], for instance), so the question becomes: Why has Jia--whose films Platform (2000), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006) are masterpieces--made this film in this way?

The subject of 24 City is a military factory that was built during the Korean war to manufacture airplanes for the war effort, but has since fallen on hard times (despite China's booming economy), and is to be torn down to make way for an upscale condominium complex. As in Still Life, about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the implication is that the workers who made the country's economic growth possible are being gentrified into obscurity by an emerging upper-class riding the wave of their alienated labor.

But where Still Life dramatizes this thesis, 24 City consists primarily of shots of seated interviewees telling sob stories to a stationary camera. For instance, we learn that one factory employee, nicknamed "Little Flower" due to her resemblance to Joan Chen, was a woman from Shanghai who had many male admirers, but--like Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)--never married. Over the course of the film, the people being interviewed get progressively younger, arriving finally at the daughter of two factory workers whose job is to buy clothes for rich people who are too busy to shop for themselves.

I've enjoyed talky documentaries in the past, like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), which juxtaposed contemporary interviews with silent footage of the Nazi death camps in much the same way that Jia's film alternates between interviews and short, vérité-style scenes of the same people (one woman is introduced walking around holding up her I.V.), and shots of the factory being demolished. And of course, one of the most powerful scenes in all the cinema is Bibi Andersson's monologue about the orgy on the beach in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), which Jean-Luc Godard effectively paid homage to a year later in Weekend (1967). I think the difference is that the interviewees in Lanzmann's film, and the actors in the films by Bergman and Godard, are describing specific incidents, and their words conjure up vivid images in the viewer's imagination. Rather than activating my imagination, Jia's film remains resolutely on the screen.

One wrinkle differentiating Jia's film from a traditional documentary like Shoah is that two of the people interviewed here are recognizable stars, and others may be actors as well. Little Flower is, in fact, played by Joan Chen, and the woman who shops for rich people is played by Zhao Tao, who appears in all of Jia's movies. However, whether or not the interviews are true, they're no more or less compelling either way.

In the film, Jia has made a deliberate choice to tell rather than show, and I understand this intellectually. But unlike Anat Zuria's Black Bus (2010), which invites us to imagine more than what's represented on screen, 24 City I felt simply talked at me. Not one of its interviews stimulated me in any way. But is that a problem with the film or with me? (It's been praised by a number of reviewers I admire, including Manhola Dargis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Michael Sicinski.) Watching it, I knew how Roger Ebert must've felt watching Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997), and I sincerely hope I'm as wrong about 24 City as Ebert was about that film.

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