Situated in Chengdu—a region most recently known for the devastating earthquake of 2008—the building referenced in the title of Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City is a luxury apartment complex intended to house the winners of the Chinese market boom. But its gleaming edifice exists in theory only; what Jia actually shows is the once-bustling factory that’s razed to make room for progress, a former military production unit that specialized in aviation engines for the country’s air force. For developers (and likely for government officials as well), the new building will be a monument to prosperity, wealth, and a distinctly capitalist mode of upward mobility. For Jia, it’s a powerful symbol of upheaval, broken lives, and pervasive decay. Nothing is being constructed in 24 City; all viewers see is an agonizing demolition.
Welcome to the familiar world of Jia Zhang-ke. Over the past decade, he’s concerned himself with sweeping changes in Chinese culture and the individuals pinned under the steamroller. His 2000 breakthrough Platform chronicled a theater troupe in the late ’70s and ’80s caught up in the swells of Westernization, and his duo from 2006, the fiction film Still Life and the documentary Dong, dealt with the mass exodus necessitated by the Three Gorges Dam project. In every case, the backdrops of Jia’s films are extraordinary: Momentous, politically engaged, and strongly attuned to the consequences of progress on a macro scale. And in every case, he also seems oddly incapable of doing anything interesting in the foreground.
In what sounds like a bolder experiment than it turns out to be, 24 City confuses the line between fiction and documentary, framing the factory closing around interviews with eight subjects—five workers sharing their real-life experiences, and three professional actresses (Joan Chen, Lv Liping, and Zhao Tao) telling other women’s stories as if they were their own. The difference between the two parties is jarring without necessarily being illuminating: There isn’t much continuity between the real people and the actors, and Jia’s intended purpose, to represent history as “a blend of facts and imagination,” is only made clear through his official statement. Mostly, 24 City falls into the same Jia trap of inadvertently drawing the viewers’ gaze past his human subjects and to the poetic images of a country in painful metamorphosis.