Thoughts on Jia Zhangke’s 24 City

Normally I prefer to write a straight-up review, but in light of an unusual experience in watching film, I thought I’d make this a meta-review of sorts:

Thoughts on Jia Zhangke’s 24 City

I went to watch this film at Zhongshan Park in Shanghai last Tuesday. When the lights dimmed, a “documentary” about Tibet came on. As you may know, this is the sensitive year for anniversaries in China, and is, in particular, the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet that led to the exile of the Dalai Lama. The documentary was called, quite pointedly, “China’s Tibet, Past and Future”. If you’ve followed this issue at all, none of the information presented in this film is surprising:

*Tibet has been part of China and the Tibetan rulers have acknowledged Chinese suzerainty since ancient times. Here are pictures and images of various historical documents that prove this point.
*Why bother decrying the vetting of Tibetan religious leaders by China’s central government? Emperors used to do this sometimes, including with the latest Dalai Lama, so what’s the big deal if the CCP inherits this type of role.
*Tibet was a despotic, feudal system before the Chinese liberated it. It was a cruel theocracy of vast socio-economic inequality. The lamas and their families–the upper strata of the ancien regime–owned everything, including virtually all the arable land and other resources of production. Regular people had next to nothing.
*China liberated Tibet and gave it a good dose of progressive socialist ideology–and things improved greatly.
*Tibetan heritage is flourishing and the standard of living has steadily improved.

It was clearly and unambiguously agitprop, but 21st. century China style, wrapping the historical narrative of Tibet up in and interweaving it with that of modern China as a whole, including the successful Beijing Olympics and the upcoming World Expo. At fifteen minutes, it was long and tendentious, and made me a bit impatient, since even after it finished, there was yet another long preview (of a regular movie), so that the film we came to watch didn’t start until a good twenty or twenty-five minutes after the time stated on the ticket.

24 City

Jia Zhangke has said, over the years, that he wants to alternate making docs and fiction films, and in this case he has melded the two.There are real people mixed with actors doing recreations–Joan Chen, Lv Liping, Zhao Tao, among others–but while these actors put on some decent performances these interviewees, the film doesn’t end up being more than a series of vignettes. I doubt that Jia intended to put together some systematic history of the place, but there is an unfinished, work-in-progress feel to this movie that tends to work towards its detriment. However, many of the interviews with the real people are better, because you know they are real–so here, again,is a meta-level question–how does the fact that you are watching Joan Chen change your perception of what’s being shown? It’s obvious that no matter how good Chen’s acting chops are, what she is doing is a performance. Most of the time, of course, we accept this–because that’s what makes fictional films possible in the first place–however, in this case, while Chen and the others are fine, they are still a bit actorly–and you wouldn’t really notice that fact unless you had all these more “real” performances to compare them with.

Jia is probably too intelligent not to notice this himself, but it still took me aback when he confronted this head on during the Joan Chen segment, where she says in her youth, at the prime of her beauty, her coworkers at the factory compared her to the actress Joan Chen. A little pomo joke? Maybe, but it made me a bit skittish. I suppose I still relish the suspension of disbelief and don’t like the feeling of being taken for a ride, even if the ride, for the most part, is an enjoyable one.

That said, there are some moving moments, both from the actors and the real interviewees–enough to remind you that Jia Zhangke is one of the only Chinese filmmakers out there that can convey the gravity of China’s changing. That pathos, that uniquely Chinese pathos that glossier magazines and Western media don’t–or rather, can’t pick up on–is captured by Jia’s lens. One can almost forgive the lack of polish for that very reason–Jia, more than other filmmakers is continually creating audiovisual artifacts for us, the rest of the world, Chinese and non-Chinese alike–that will, I believe, stand the test of time,not only for their aesthetic excellence but because they are excellent chronicles of China. They are chronicles of physical reality, of its metamorphosis–but more than that,they are chronicles of the spirit, of what Chinese people call jingshen, which can mean anything mental, intellectual, spiritual–and in Jia’s case, it’s the emotional undertow, the things that are not said, that are glossed over and ignored by ideological or mainstream rhetorics that finally, as it were, get their say.

It is this kind of pathos that you don’t normally see among the audiovisual artifacts being produced today: and that’s what makes the contrast with the Tibetan propaganda film so striking. Jia was once an unofficial or underground filmmaker–and he no longer is, and he is, as well as know, no longer a skint and scrappy indie guy. He makes money. He’s got connections. But there’s still something very real, and very heartfelt at the core, and in a world of cinematic
phoniness, there’s something to be said for that stick to your guns type mentality.

To bring it back to Tibet: it is a strange juxtaposition, watching these two films together–we’re so used to seeing just previews before the movie that to see this stylish bit of agitprop is a bit startling: it hearkens back to newsreels of old, a time when the news was delivered on big screens, or when the political just had to intrude everywhere.

Because the world was in the throes of war or what have you. I feel obliged to mention that when we went, on Tuesday afternoon, even with the half off discount the theater was nearly empty.I highly doubt that Jia is going to make much money off this film, at least on the domestic market. Likewise, watching propaganda in the afternoon with a handful of other people didn’t quite jibe with I am sure that they play the Tibet film before the other, popular movies, so that before you settle down to watching “Transporter 3″ you get a good dose of “historical” education about the Tibet issue. Just in case things get hairy and out of control in Tibetan areas this March, or throughout the rest of this sensitive year.

China changes, or China never changes. Same ideological posture, except now in IMAX. However, Jia’s world, everything changes–and the only thing that lasts, the only thing that binds us are memories.Children are lost to their parents. Migrations, emotional rows, generation gaps all tear families asunder. The ligature of memory is strained as people get older–it seems strong when they are recalling it in front of us–but of course, we know that simply recalling something and saying it verbally doesn’t really do justice to the “strength” or “saturation” of that memory among the many memories that are stored in your brain or the salient memories constitutive of the sense of self and identity. Therefore, you get the uneasy sense that you are watching something that was unearthed quite by accident, and could very well have been lost. Maybe these “little people”, these “laobaixing” don’t mean much in the large scale of things: you read media articles with Chinese government planners, bureaucrats and energy scientists that are talking about the year 2100 like it’s tomorrow. Just about all of us who are alive now will be dead by that time, and our secrets and wounds, the maybes and could have beens–both individual and collective–will be just as gone. I’ve always been afraid that the official Chinese meta-narrative would swamp and subsume everything else–which is why it’s that much more incumbent on artists, in whatever medium, to keep recording the micro-sadnesses, vicissitudes, twists and turns, warp and woof of the individual life and consciousness. Lest it be completely be forgotten by History.

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