Anyone who has been living long enough in Chengdu has probably unwittingly passed it at least a few times—the big gate of Factory 420 where Erhuan Lu passes over Shang Guinian Lu.
You might have seen the big gate, at the top of which rests a sign that says 24城—"ershi-si cheng"—the name of the huge apartment complex that now occupies a site that for decades housed one of Chengdu's major factories. Employing and housing thousands of the city's families, the 420 Factory functioned as a micro-city within a city, autarchic and off-limits to outsiders due to its line of production—military aircraft.
As such, the "city" housed schools and a hospital enclosed within its gates. It was not uncommon for successive generations to spend their entire lives there, as children, employees, and finally retirees.
Sixth-generation icon Jia Zhangke (often referred to in English as "Zhang Ke Jia") interviewed more than 100 people who worked and lived in the factory but ended up using only a handful of these interviews in the film he created afterward.
To complete the story and film, he filmed scenes with actors and actresses retelling the real-life employees' stories. If we're to believe the film, which features not only Sichuanhua but also Shanghai and lots and lots of Dongbei-accented Mandarin, employees who came to work at the factory never managed to pick up a hint of the local language even after decades of working there.
While Jia sought—and found—approval to release the film on the Mainland, it still wasn't particularly well received by officials with its unsympathetic portrayal of the working-class lifestyle.
Uncomfortable scenes, such as an interview with one of the factory's overseers, now evidently mentally or emotionally damaged from years of grueling work, and shots of woman on her deathbed, seem to confirm this sentiment.
The uneasiness of the film's mood on the whole is really broken only once when the camera catches two workmates sitting together and smiling and you can feel one bright moment in the workers' otherwise toilsome day-to-day existence.
Ironically, perhaps the brightest moment seems to be a subtle celebration of capitalism: the final interview with a former factory worker's daughter who managed to break out of the factory lifecycle, setting out for a career as a saleswoman and living the young Chinese metropolitan yuppie life.
Ending on that note makes the film seem to carry the message that the industrialization process is over; hard labor has moved somewhere cheaper; the first three generations of the PRC have done their part to build up the country's infrastructure; and now the new generation can live the good, easy life.
It almost looks as if Jia wants to maintain his status as l'enfant terrible even after all the legislation, but somehow gets lost in his compromises: The movie is neither documentary nor history nor even really strong story-telling.
That said, foreign film-festival critics received 24 City with rave reviews, including a prestigious nomination at Cannes. And though it stirred some debate among the Chinese public, who have a more critical, insiders' perspective than foreign viewers, the film was lauded among the aforementioned yuppie generation for departing from the beaten path and starting a new dialogue. Jia also published a book recounting many of the interviews; and as is often the case, the book might well be better than the movie.
24 City 二十四城记 (2008)
directed by Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯)
An earlier version of this review was published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 22, "China."