24 City – an old story with a topical nature

It’s not often that I decide to write a review of an older movie, but the fact that it’s been often mentioned as a representation of the Chinese “new wave” got me interested and eager to pay more attention to it.

“24 City” is a drama about generations of people that worked in a state-owned factory in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China. Filmed in 2008, entirely in a documentary format, with a mish-mash of authentic and fictional dance between the script, the actors and real people interviews, the movie was in the competition for the Palme d’Or that year. Immediately after few sequences at the start, we knew where the story would take us, and by the time we reach the third interviewee, we could foreseen what will the closure symbolise: sorrow, emotional confusion and emptiness.

A still from "24 City"
A still from “24 City”

Sometimes it didn’t matter that the camera is showing a lonely silent man in a huge empty room that’s falling apart. By paying careful attention to portray the essence of that time and the factory, the director managed to make the man fill the room with his own strong character. As expected, sometimes frames are more than static, reflecting their lives and the mentality of workers in China. We hear stories of love, politics, history and desperation, all together, and sometimes in the same sentence. Through the interviews we often hear how hard-working nation China is. And as someone who actually had an opportunity to visit it few years ago I can’t stop wondering: is that the reason why they’re so powerful?

A man behind it, Jia Zhanke is a well-known Chinese director and screenwriter who, as some like to say, belong to a group of “new wave” Asian directors who decided to make things pretty underground in the beginning. He reached his international praise after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for wonderful and captivating drama “Still Life”. In 2013 he won the award for the Best Screenplay at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for another drama inspired by true events, “A Touch of Sin”. As far as the “new wave” tag, I don’t want to diminish his role in Chinese cinema, and the power of his “underground” touch to nowadays film industry (because it’s evident), but I am sure many will agree that “new wave” is reserved for some other names and other decades.

“24 City” is a powerful and simple story about the effects of modernisation, which can apply to any nation, not only the one described in the film. On one hand it’s understandable that Zhanke didn’t want to introduce any hidden meanings and put everything straight. On the other hand this is not a documentary per se, and the lack of much needed “fictional” frames is noticeable. However, after watching it, with the emotions portrayed, you will find yourself questioning your actions, your choices, your work…

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