Play the Jia Zhangke 24 City East-West Match Game

24city1It’s always an event for us at dGenerate when a Chinese film enjoys a theatrical release in the United States, especially when it’s a film from Jia Zhangke. But Jia’s new film 24 City, which opened today in New York and will hopefully make its way across the country, is a particularly interesting case, because the film in some ways is a critique of itself as a international cultural product.

The issue of the different reactions between Western and Chinese audiences to Chinese cinema has been with us for at least since the first appearance of Zhang Yimou’s exotic period tragedies. But what’s striking about 24 City is how it seems to elicit different reactions across national borders by design. The film mixes non-professional subjects with professional actors portraying civilians, and films all of them in the same talking heads interview format as they relate the history of a run-down factory complex in Chengdu. Chinese audiences are bound to recognize the actors, while Americans are not, with the exception of Joan Chen and possibly Jia regular Zhao Tao. This is but the tip of a wedge driven between distinctly Chinese and non-Chinese experiences of reality and fiction by this groundbreaking work.

In her review in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis pondered, “It’s hard to believe that his movies, with their lengthy takes and generous silences, will ever attract a popular audience of any nationality.” And yet this is Jia’s most commercially successful feature in China to date, earning more than 1 million yuan in its first three days of its release. The China Daily goes on to say, “The film received rather divided opinions from the audience. Those identifying themselves with the lives of the main characters widely hailed it, but some cinema-goers just couldn’t follow the way the director arranged the storyline.”

For the sake of comparison, we have collected a brief sample both American print reviews of the film, and Chinese responses from various sources, from press to online audience reviews. And, in a nod to Jia Zhangke’s playfulness, we are withholding the identities of the reviewers until the very end. Just as Jia had Americans guessing which performances were by actors and which by non-actors, can you guess which of these reviews were written by American film critics, and which were by Chinese? Answers at the bottom…

1. Jia Zhangke strives to incorporate artistic expressions into 24 City. He is an ambitious person who is very concerned about the society, and this sometimes confines his experimental creation since he is always trying to accomplish something that is almost impossible to achieve, such as blending real life workers and actors as interviewees. This daring experiment reveals the tension between art and society, and questions the relationship between representation and reality.

Another challenge is the visual style of the film. The use of staged stills and the capture of the unnatural expression on the subjects’ face in front of the camera are borrowed from contemporary photography language, which emphasizes the staged aspects of photographs.

2. The people in 24 City are actually living around us. They are our parents, they are ourselves. The films touches the our inmost feeling, and makes us burst into tears. We respect it, we understand it, we feel regretted, and overwhelmed by a sentiment that cannot be put into words.

24 City is more than a film. It is a poem, a painting, a language. Only people who have the same experience can understand it. It is like feeling a pain. You can never understand it from a dictionary.

24 City touches us so deeply because it brings the people who are forgotten by the rapidly developing society back into light. It is an important witness of reality. What has disappeared cannot make us proud. We are utterly helpless and lonely.

3. The experience of watching this back and forth between the real and the imagined, and between people and places, is at once immersive and distancing… There’s something slightly disorienting about a work that doesn’t have the usual markers that assure you that now you’re watching a fiction, now you’re watching a documentary, which, as I realized on second viewing, can work beautifully for a movie about profound dislocation.

Of course an actor is also a real person in real time and real space even if he or she is pantomiming in front of a special-effects green screen. This isn’t semantics: it’s just one of the complexities of representation. This blurring is interesting in purely formal terms, but it’s also dramatically potent. The actors in 24 City bring their own existential realities to their short, touching performances.

4. Impressive acting from Lu Liping, Chen Jianbin and Joan Chen deserves even more credit than Jia’s poignant narration. They are utterly believable as factory workers struggling to find their identities within a rapidly evolving society. The film has been criticized – not unjustifiably – for not targeting the domestic market, but 24 City is definitely one to watch.

5. In what sounds like a bolder experiment than it turns out to be, 24 City confuses the line between fiction and documentary, framing the factory closing around interviews with eight subjects – five workers sharing their real-life experiences, and three professional actresses (Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and Zhao Tao) telling other women’s stories as if they were their own. The difference between the two parties is jarring without necessarily being illuminating: There isn’t much continuity between the real people and the actors, and Jia’s intended purpose, to represent history as “a blend of facts and imagination,” is only made clear through his official statement. Mostly, 24 City falls into the same Jia trap of inadvertently drawing the viewers’ gaze past his human subjects and to the poetic images of a country in painful metamorphosis.

6. Both Platform and 24 City depict the historical trajectory of a certain group of people. Platform is a journey, while 24 City is retrospective. The former is about experience, and the later invites people to contemplate. Although 24 City has received lots of criticism for using professional actors and its fake documentation, I believe that narrated stories sometimes can be more powerful and real than “reality”. As far as I know, most overseas audiences think the film is believable. I think their judgment is more objective since they are not familiar with the actors.

7. Although Jia Zhangke says, “The fusion of documentary and fiction is a fusion of reality and imagination,” this fusion largely weakens the impact of the film. The documentary style requires the stars to perform with a mask. Truth is concealed rather than revealed. The professional actors can never escape from being recognized, and their stardom becomes a vital disadvantage in performing their roles.

8. Despite his deliberate mise-en-scène and the hyper-clarity of the high-definition images, it’s not an easy movie to read. Is the filmmaker bemused or amused by a factory bureaucrat’s earnest remark that “our offices will become a five-star hotel”? And what is one to make of the casually revealed information that the movie itself was partially financed by 24 City‘s developer? Have we been watching a kind of infomercial? Is there irony or pathos in the juxtaposition of retired workers enthusiastically singing “The International” as their factory collapses?

9. Purists may be put off by this hybrid approach, but there’s nothing more impure than a documentary that claims to be objective while selling a subtle agenda. 24 City has no agenda, despite critics who see it as an apologia for harsh policies of the past, or a celebration of China’s new industrial prowess and unbridled consumerism. Mr. Jia is an artist, one of the most interesting filmmakers working anywhere in the world, and he made his film to bear witness to a way of life while witnesses could still be found.

ANSWERS:

1. Chinese. Xu Bing, the renowned Chinese artist; 2. Chinese. Zhang Laotui, doubtan.com; 3. American. Manohla Dargis, The New York Times; 4. Chinese. Wang Ge, The Beijinger; 5. American. Scott Tobias, The A/V Club ; 6. Chinese. soldier4ai, douban.com; 7. Chinese. Grey Wolf, The Wayward Cloud ; 8. American. J. Hoberman, The Village Voice; 9. American. Joe Morgenstern, The Wall St. Journal.

For more reviews in English, visit the IFC Daily.

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