“…given that there are different ways of writing History, your film should really be considered more as an archaeology of cinema in Foucault’s sense, not in the usual sense of an archeology that examines traces from the past to establish the factual genesis of things, but one that uses different moments and monuments as the basis for constructs that may seem questionable. It deals with essential relations even though these are not found purely in the world of anterior facts, like a sequence of events.”
“Cinema has this archive aspect because it’s about recording. That’s why, you say, there ought to be equality and fraternity between reality and fiction in cinema. Because it’s both things together, cinema can bear witness. Even independently of the war news, a simple 35 mm rectangle saves the honor of reality, you say; every film is a news document. Cinema only films the past, meaning what passes. It is memory and the refuge of time.”
Youssef Ishaghpour in conversation with Jean-Luc Godard
“An experienced event is finite – at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it”
Walter Benjamin on Proust
“…we backed away from that moment again and again, circling it, stalking it, until we had it cornered and began to tame it with words.”
Ian McEwan, “Enduring Love”
In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.
The cinema is particularly well suited to notions of remembrance – the act of filming is in fact the capturing of moment, a kind of embalming; a film is, at the very least, a record of its own making, particular to that time and that place. Most importantly, it is something that we can return to, revisit, rewatch (and now rewind). We think of newsreels, the home movie (now the home video), the snapshot, a family album consisting of fragmented shards of experience. This is personal, yes, but also a part of history – a history not (only) of dates and facts but infused with the experiences of those who have passed through it and remember. I think this is what Jonathan Rosenbaum is referring to when he says that Jia Zhangke “has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience.”
24 City is Zhangke’s latest chronicle of a country in transition, recounting roughly the last 50 years of Chinese history through personal interviews with former workers at a military factory, designated “420”, that is being torn down to make way for a new, state of the art living and recreational facility – the titular 24 City. But far from a recounting of dates or numbers, it is a personalized recounting, as each interviewee digresses into stories of girlfriends, mentors, parents, their travels, etc. Hanging over the proceedings is the ominous presence and structuring absence of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, the gradual shift towards a free market capitalism, and modern dislocation.
The film features 8 or so interviews, with recurring punctuation between each segment – the screen will fade to black and Zhangke will play a pop song or display text on the screen. We also see the occasional scene of the factory being demolished and the construction of 24 City (the name 24 City is derived from a popular poem about the city of
A man seated at a bar speaks about growing up in the factory – due to its immensity, the grounds had their own school, shopping, movie theatre, etc. The children did not often mingle with the townspeople, and when they did it was usually to fight. He begins to speak of first love and his eyes turn away from the camera as he drifts away into a silent repose – a memory unable to be articulated in words. We gradually come to our last two interviewees, and the film has completed its trajectory into the modern. A young television newscaster recounts his few days of work in the factory; the back breaking tedium and repetition is too much to handle and he leaves, despite the disappointment to his parents. A young woman speaks about her mother, and that witnessing her working conditions brought her to tears. Her dream – to save enough money to buy her parents a condo in the new 24 City (the young woman is a “personal buyer”, a shopper for rich women who are too busy, or lazy, to purchase things for themselves).
Perhaps I’ve gone to long without mentioning that three of the eight interviews that make up the bulk of the film are actually reconstructions using actors (Zhangke regulars Lu Liping and Zhao Tao, as well as superstar Joan Chen.) I must confess that the recreations blend so seamlessly with the actual interviews that, with the exception of Joan Chen’s segment, I couldn’t tell which was which. This has led some commentators to reject Zhangke’s entire project, the notion being, I assume, that he has tipped his hand and that we must view the entire film as a fiction. This is a simple and easy way of sidestepping the entire point of the film, at least in as much as what I take the film to be about. You’ll forgive the long quotes at the start of this piece but it seems important to at least attempt to grapple with the complex issues of film, history and cultural memory/identity. As the 20th Century’s most popular art form, how can we not recognize that movies play an integral part in how we construct a narrative of the past, present and future? Joan Chen’s interview segment involves her recounting her arrival at 420 and the bestowing of her nickname, “Little Flower”. Of course, Little Flower is the 1980 film that made her name as an actress, so Zhangke is dabbling in a kind of mobius strip that circles back on itself continuously: an actress playing a woman named after a character made famous by the actress. As a narrative conceit the idea is perhaps too cute, too self consciously winking at the audience. But Zhangke has been blurring the line between “Fiction” and “Documentary” for some time now, and he is aware of Chen’s own complicated relationship with
It’s interesting to me that critics have read the film as a paean to communism and, conversely, as an ode to capitalism and modernization. Zhangke has no interest, I think, in either extreme, and it is to his credit that no party line is established. Instead, we see people living, with all the complexity that comes with it. We see faces, gestures, emotions – the solidity of the human, not the opaqueness of facts and figures. The camera is locked to a face, and we come to know it in the time that it is on screen. Much as Zhangke’s The World is about the state of modern communication, linking us together as it simultaneously enables increased isolation, it is also, like Still Life and 24 City, about a kind of literal and metaphoric displacement. The Three Gorges Dam is a marvel of human engineering and ingenuity, but that might be little comfort to an estimated one million people forced to relocate while their home are flooded; similarly, the sleek steel and glass structures of 24 City might be beautiful, and even become a home to the people who can afford it, but this might be little comfort to the thousands of people who no longer have a job at Factory 420. The forced relocations of city dwellers to the countryside is now reversed – the ideologies are different, but the human cost remains the same. A great leap forward indeed.
In the most recent issue of the essential film journal Cinemascope, critic Michael Sicinski lays out a fascinating deconstruction of the recent Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. He makes several comments that strike me as particularly relevant to the film at hand. I’ll quote briefly: “with (director) Zhang Yimou at the helm, the entire world fell in line, panel by panel. This, in a sense, was the ideal endpoint for the display as a whole, since if one theme could be said to predominate, it was, of course, the total and unproblematic absorption of the individual into the anonymous mass.” He continues, “When we watch Yimou and his cultural assembly line, it is vital that those masses appear as remote as possible, lest we grasp the late-capitalist punchline. Those are the faces of production; their congealed labour power surrounds us every moment of the day; we are little more than anonymous, identical nodes of congealed consumptive power…”. Jia Zhangke gives these sweeping historical, political, and economic tidal waves a name, a face and a memory – we must rail against anonymity. Truly, the personal is the political, and we would all do well to remember that.