Modern China’s gradual shift from collectivism to free-market economics forms the backbone of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, a beguiling documentary/fiction hybrid in which the Still Life director examines the transition of munitions manufacturing plant 420, located in Southwest China’s Chengdu city, into a futuristic complex for commercial and residential businesses as well as apartment high-rises. Zhang’s camera wanders through the empty floors and corridors of 420 with a bemused, distant somberness reminiscent of Antonioni, capturing a sense of detachment from the past that extends to its nine interviews with former workers. The catch is that five of these chats are scripted, having been constructed by Zhangke from real testimonies, a method that isn’t always as seamless as the director would like it to be but nonetheless furthers the presiding mood of internal and external disconnection. 24 City folds reality and make-believe into one, most strikingly during an interview with a middle-aged beauty – stymied, by fate’s unpredictable hand, from marrying – whose nickname, “Little Bird,” stems from her resemblance to actress Joan Chen, which makes sense considering that she’s played by the actress. Frustratingly, Zhangke’s performers aren’t as compelling as his authentic subjects, but the complexity of his postmodernist formal gambit nonetheless gets at something pressing: not simply the intertwined relationship between people and environment, and the inescapable influence of before on now, but also – via its TV-doc interview cinematography, its use of pop songs, and its references to movies – the way in which our relationship to history is deeply filtered through pop culture fiction.
(2008 New York Film Festival)