24 City, a film that expertly mixes documentary footage and fictional reenactments, follows several generations of women living and working in Chengdu City for Xinda Machinery’s Chengfu Group. Factory 420, a not-so-well-kept state secret, has since been turned into residential housing. The film chronicles the lives of several women whose personal and professional lives are inextricably linked to the longstanding behemoth factory cum apartment complex, a throwback to Mao’s communism.
Director Jia Zhangke is perhaps best known stateside for his 2004 film, The World. He is also one of the leaders of Chinese cinema’s Sixth Generation movement, a loosely connected group of independent filmmakers responsible for some of the more innovative works coming from China’s underground and state-sanctioned mainstream.
To add to the striking archive footage in 24 City, the film stars several well-known actresses, including Joan Chen. Best known for her role in TV’s Twin Peaks, Chen also starred in 2007 films Lust, Caution and The Sun Also Rises. Zhao Tao, Zhangke’s longtime muse and frequent star of his films, also has a leading role.
As beautiful as 24 City is, it overwhelming appeals to film buffs and cinema theorists. It’s also helpful to have working knowledge of Chinese history and communist labor. The necessity of knowing so much back story left me and my viewing partner a bit confused at times, as though we’d missed an introductory interview or establishing footage. The film was nominated for the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes, and knowing this going in, I hesitated to find fault. Yet 24 City moves slowly and sometimes lacks audio precision. It is a truly gorgeous film, expertly framed, but no one should expect an action-packed adventure from the docu-narrative piece.
More than mainstream appeal, or relying on special effects, the film offers a meditation on dystopian modern life in post-Mao China. After 4,000 workers were laid off from the factory, many tried to make ends meet with odd jobs. One seamstress profiled explains that more than income, she believes, “If you have something to do, you age more slowly.” One unemployed worker illegally sold flowers on the street. Another tells of gathering old work gloves from the factory, only to unravel them and send the thread to her sister so new clothing could be made from the remnants.
An important, visually stimulating film, 24 City tells a meditative, multi-layered story about work, personal space, home, and gender across generations. Its uneven pace likely won’t charm mainstream movie lovers, but it’s worth a viewing for cinema geeks.