Sweet and sentimental stories of displacement
Few directors have devoted their work to the human ravages of their country’s economic growth. Of course, few countries have grown as fast and furiously as China. In that respect, Jia Zhangke has been in the right place at the right time. But the films he’s made in this decade - among them, “Unknown Pleasures,’’ “Platform,’’ “The World,’’ “Still Life,’’ and the ultimately moving “24 City,’’ which opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts - are more than the byproduct of happenstance. Together, they create a surreal national chronicle, artistic in nature, political by temperament, tactile, dolorous, ironically funny, grounded in a hypnotic haze of smoke, fumes, fog, and waste.
While “Still Life’’ focused on the displacements stirred during the ongoing construction of the Three Gorges dam, “24 City’’ settles on an aeronautics factory in Chengdu, a city whose expansion seems to epitomize the rest of the country’s. The company that has run the factory since the 1940s is moving to a new location. The old building is to be demolished and the site turned, somewhat inevitably, into a building of condos called 24 City.
Other industrial towns all over the world could tell the same story, and many filmmakers have: a flourishing, then a demise. Jia has done so with poetry. He tells factory 420’s story through the memories of the men and women who hold some connection to it (either because they worked there or their parents did).
“24 City’’ is as vivid as his other movies; as ambiguous, too. Built largely out of interviews, the movie leaves vague who is and isn’t acting. Or, it leaves that issue as vague as it can. The real people have a sadness and charisma that feels more organic than the professionals. The first former worker Jia introduces, He Xikun, reminisces about a former boss, Wang Zhiren, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. Jia films the reunion: two old men catching up, the older one explaining that he toiled at 420 every day (including holidays) for decades. Presumably, that explains why He has to shout for Wang to hear him. Their visit is touching. As the younger man strokes the head of the wizened, wheezing older one, you sense that the factory had taken its toll years ago.
It’s tough for the actors who follow to approximate this emotional matter-of-factness. They’re a mix of polish and preciousness. We meet a performer who worked as a quality inspector at 420. Having gotten her name, Little Flower, from a soapy old Joan Chen movie, she conducts her interview sitting in the chair of a beauty salon.
As it happens, the woman sitting in the chair telling this story is played by Chen. The trick perches the movie, somewhat uncomfortably, between pathos and play. The opening credits promise a cast of actors, and a winking trickery interrupts the solemnity, which is nothing new for Jia, whose best movies often succeed on dual tonal tracks. But the ambiguity this time isn’t whether what we’re watching is funny or sad (with him it tends to be both). It’s how much - and whom -we’re to take seriously.
That doesn’t ruin the movie so much as complicate it more than is needed. The loveliest passages are actually the interludes between interviews, where Jia plays pop songs, quotes poets, and shows the factory in operation then being taken apart. People labor at giant machines and stream into the building as a congested sea of uniformed bodies and expressionless faces. There’s a montage of two youngish workers who at some point stand, as many others do, in front of the camera, one man tickling the other’s face. Are they loving co-workers or co-workers in love? The director has an exquisite eye that keeps getting stronger and subtler. He trusts that beauty is vagueness’s alluring upside.
“24 City’’ courses with a unique pity, that of, say, from a daughter for parents who broke their backs to keep her alive. If this is an unusually sentimental outing for Jia, it’s also characteristically tinged with woe. He’s just added a touch of sweetness to these otherwise sugarless lives.