‘24 City’ explores relic of Cold War China

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, May 7, 2009 1:55pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

In his film “Still Life,” which played last year, director Jia Zhang-ke looked at the serious (yet sometimes almost dreamlike) effects of the displacement that resulted from the damming of the Yangtze River for China’s Three Gorges project.

In a new film, “24 City,” Jia is once again pondering displacement, but not because of a rising river. The city of Chengdu is a major Chinese metropolis, but for years it contained a city-within-the-city: Factory 420, a huge state-owned aeronautics and munitions plant.

Now the old factory is being replaced by a new planned housing development. In a handy way, the change demonstrates the gradual shift from China’s monolithic communist society to the more market-driven world there today.

Jia’s approach to this situation is not at all conventional. In the first part of the film, he shows us views of the once-secret Factory 420, which does piecemeal work, in contrast to its heyday cranking out jet bombers for service in the Vietnam War.

Mostly Jia concentrates on interviews with people involved in the factory, including one woman who tells a harrowing story about being separated from her child while en route to a job at 420 (many of the workers there were imported from other parts of China, adding to the factory’s atmosphere of a city unto itself).

Other subsequent interviews are staged, with actors including Joan Chen. Why this tactic? Is Jia introducing fictional elements to reflect on the way that Factory 420 itself was a kind of spy-movie operation, a secret society within the narrative of the Cold War?

He doesn’t say, although the rusting fighter planes sit outside the factory, like relics from a movie set. In the otherwise naturalistic setting of “Still Life,” Jia included a spaceship lifting off, so this kind of gesture fits his approach.

“24 City”

A documentary, but with some dramatized monologues, about a former secret Cold War munitions plant — a city unto itself — in the city of Chengdu. Jia Zhang-ke’s film fills in this piece of Cold War history by listening to the testimonies of the now-displaced former workers. (In Mandarin, with English subtitles.)

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter

Showing: Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle

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