(2008) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
It’s not like I don’t have aspirations to be more read, more appreciated, attract more readers, but the bottom line is the way that I do this film diary thing is that I write about the films that I see, the films that interest me, not the films that just come out every Friday and draw the dollars into the theater or even the “big” DVD rentals of the week. Case in point is 24 City, a film by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia who probably fewer than 1% of film viewers will have ever heard nor will ever see the films produced by this fascinating director.
The difference for me is that while on a jag of his films, having watched Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006), I read about his film 24 City, a film about a Chinese munitions/airplane factory that was like a pseudo-pre-fab city and its transition into modern deluxe housing, I was totally excited. I was feeling like “This is a film I want to see!” and it took some months to come here, and then ultimately to DVD/Video rather than theatrical release despite its playing at the Cannes Film Festival.
Who is going to be reading my damn film writing with the same interests as me? Fucking nobody.
Hey, I get it. But it’s something I committed to almost 8 years ago and still use for a crazy outlet of my own thoughts, my own discovery of cinema, world cinema, contemporary cinema, historical cinema, trash cinema, DVD’s, genre films, all whatever fucking interests me. How many people who will even stumble on this (my writing) who have even heard of Zhang Ke Jia? Surely in deeper cinematic circles, people respect and are struck by the vision that he offers.
The fact is that Zhang Ke Jia is perhaps one of the most interesting Chinese filmmakers in more than a decade, perhaps in some ways, potentially ever. His films deal with China, the enormous, deeply historical country, that is coming to shape the future of the world. It’s his country, it’s not an outside perspective. But also it is a perspective that tries to understand the drastic change that is happening, the monumental against the tiny individual. The human individual’s story against the backdrop of the massive change, the most massive country, the most massive changes, culturally and functionally, but also physically. The dramas that play out in his films seem like poetic documents from a time of fantastic transition and significantly historical change.
24 City is a weird film in many ways, some strange mixture of straight documentary mixed with interpretive narrative fiction meant to portray the same tonality and stories. Actually, it might be a sort of fascinating document fighting the concept of documentary against Neo-Realism. And it’s interesting that he should choose such a dramatic change to experiment with his filmmaking.
A factory, which was created in the 1950’s to build arms for war, which drew people from a village to a new place, drew them from their families in a battle for greater good, in which individual lives gave way to the greater machinations of the country. But now, this factory is changing again. Only existing a generation or so, it could so easily be a historical oddity, but people’s lives happened within its rules, within its walls. And this change is a change that reflects the change of this massive nation.
Zhang Ke Jia’s film may not be as powerful and moving as I’d hoped it would be, but I have to say, given his other work and his general approach to his work, it will likely be a strange, complicated document of change, of this humanism contrasted against the most massive world event changes a nation has to attempt to maneouver. It’s crazy, hard to fully fathom, to understand, much less in a world in which these things have far from finished from playing themselves out.
A document from the depths of a history that is still working its changes and events upon the world, the smaller voices, the lives of people who work, live, and support this, but from a place in which these changes cannot yet be understood. For those of us so far outside of this world, it’s a fascinating chance to understand elements of a country that is our neighbor and brother, who may come to appear and change our histories. We can glimpse, try to understand what there is to be understood.
And beyond that, this strange and challenging work about documentation and the oppositional fictions created that are meant to enlighten those issues. I don’t know what to do with that stuff. Documentary vs. realistic fiction. When no lines are drawn. Strange and extremely thought-provoking.