It’s not a proper unexpected public holiday without a wee trip to the cinema for a foreign language or documentary film. Somehow it always feels like I’ve stolen the day from my slightly more tired, busier self. So this Monday’s effort managed to qualify on both fronts by being a documentary in Mandarin and Shanghainese.
At least, it’s sort of a documentary, there are certainly documentary elements to the film but there are also entirely fictional sections. There are eight stories told within the film, five actual oral histories and three fictions, some of the true stories are related by the originators and others by actors – at least, I think so, the lines between truth and fiction get very blurred. Some stories are obvious fictions, while others seem heart-achingly true. The director of the film, Jia Zhangke, has stated a belief that “history is always a blend of facts and imagination,” and has constructed a reality within the world of this film that reflects that. Part of the pleasure of the film then, comes from trying to guess which stories are real and which are false. This is probably an easier task if you are more familiar with Chinese cinema than I am, but sometimes it is really quite obvious. (Joan Chen may be an excellent and emotionally engaging actress, but standing among the rest of the factory choir, it is immediately obvious that she hasn’t spent the previous 30 years working in a factory.)
Stylistically, there are notable differences between the sections filmed in the factory itself – showing people at work and the factory as it is demolished – and the oral history sections. In the first type of shot the light is very naturalistic with an almost raw quality that I always associate with low budget documentary making that gives the impression of life just ‘happening’ in front on the camera – i.e. these things would be happening even if the camera wasn’t there. Whereas the later type of shot is much more stylistically lit, people and cameras positioned so that the light does interesting or emphasising things, creating a more polished type of reality. Almost as though the director wanted to underline the inherently artificial nature of the situation to further play with the audience’s understanding of reality and fiction.
I’m not sure what it means that three out of the four female contributors are fictional – perhaps the director is just playing with audience expectations of woman contributors relating sad stories – but given that the film does manage to pass the Bechdel Test despite having a format where hardly any of the characters talk to each other at all, I won’t read too much into it.
So what is true? 24 City is a film about factory 420 in Chengdu, Szechwan Province, China. The factory built aviation engines. In 1958, 4000 workers were moved across the country from Shenyang in the north to Chengdu some 1550 miles (2415 miles by the route they took) away to found the factory. The factory moved to new premises in the early 2000s and a block of luxury apartments called 24 City have been built on the old site. The memories related are moving and fascinating by turns regardless of whether they are true or false.