Jia Zhangke and the Spiders From Mars

27 04 2010
24 City, Jia Zhangke

'24 City'

Most serious film-makers have their own pet theme to which they return time and again in their work. For some it’s the eternally difficult relationship between men and women. For others it’s the lone individual on a mission. But for Jia Zhangke, whose new film 24 City is released this week, it’s nothing less than the history of modern China, and the lives of the billion plus people caught up in its upheavals over the last forty years.

Jia started to make films in the 1990s and quickly established himself as an artist interested most of all in the very real changes that were going on in the world around him. While older Chinese film-makers like Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern) increasingly retreated into the distant past, Jia set his sights resolutely on China’s present and on the effects of the country’s rapid economic growth and social change. 

The film that first brought the director to the attention of the outside world was Platform (Zhantai), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. The story of a troupe of musicians and dancers caught up in the social upheavals of the years 1979 – ‘89, Platform is almost like a Chinese version of Theo Angelopoulos’ Greek film The Travelling Players. Like that film it shows ordinary people entangled in life-changing political events over which they have little or no control. As China moves from Maoist communism to Deng Xiaoping’s brand of capitalism, the group is forced into a clumsy self-privatisation, which seems to sit ill-at-ease with its deeply-ingrained collectivist identity.

Especially poignant are the love stories between different members of the troupe, whose feelings seem unbearably fragile, and constantly threatened by overwhelming and crushing external forces. This was the decade in which Jia himself grew up, so we can only assume that he knows what he’s talking about.

Platform was made outside China’s mainstream studio system, and, in many scenes, has an ‘uninvolved’ feel, with the camera placed either at a distance from the main characters or in a way that allows them to become hidden as they move or talk. For the audience, it feels almost as if the camera has stumbled into these ordinary Chinese lives by accident, and that by watching them we are somehow intruding on them.

Jia Zhangke

'Still Life'

Later years saw the director begin to experiment with digital video, a decision that further blurred the distinction between documentary and fiction in his work. 2006’s Still Life (Sanxia haoren), for example, is shot on what is, in effect, a demolition site. The story of a man and a woman searching for their respective estranged partners takes place in the town of Fengjie which, even as the cameras were rolling, was being demolished to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. The texture of the film’s digital video footage and the fact that so many scenes seem improvised or stumbled upon gives the feeling that we’re watching a documentary rather than an authored piece of fiction. So it’s certainly a shock when the first building takes off into the sky like a space shuttle, or when the first UFO starts to hover over the soon-to-be-inundated town.

Jia’s point, I think, was that life is changing so quickly for most ordinary Chinese that an alien visitation would almost be a welcome relief from all of this ceaseless human activity. People would take UFOs in their stride, just as they take the country’s gleaming new metropolises and its superpower ambitions for granted. For the migrant labourers who are demolishing Fengjie, there is no time for the past. All eyes are fixed on the future; on new cars, air-conditioned apartments and a Chinaman on Mars.     

Jia returns to this idea in 24 City which, again, was shot on a construction site. Here, the old China is represented by an aircraft engine factory in the town of Chengdu (Sichuan Province) which is being torn down and relocated to make way for a new residential and shopping complex. As the factory is stripped and prepared for demolition, Jia interviews five real-life factory workers, asking them about their lives and their memories of the place. He also interviews four actors in the guise of factory workers, giving no clear indication as to where the line between fact and fiction lies.

Indeed, you get a sense that, for this director at least, fiction and documentary are not polar opposites, but part of the same process; different tools for exploring the same pressing issues. After all, alongside his docu-fiction mash-ups, Jia has directed ‘straight’ documentaries too, among them 2007’s Useless, about the garment industry, and an as-yet-untitled piece about the history of Shanghai. He’s even due to release a companion documentary to 24 City which will deal with the relocation of the factory in different, more prosaic terms. 

Jia Zhangke

Kiss it! Jia Zhangke, yesterday.

24 City is already being hailed as a major piece of cinema, and Jia Zhangke as one of the most important film-makers at work today. This is partly, of course, a sheer accident of history. The 21st Century will, in all probability, be China’s century and whoever turns up at the ground floor with an inquisitive camera will surely find much in the way of spectacle and drama.

What’s unique about Jia’s work though, is that he resists the temptation to draw any grand, sweeping conclusions from his subjects, preferring instead to focus on the people and the individual stories involved in China’s rapid, unsteady rise. Just as today we find poignancy in the grinning, V-sign-flicking factory workers of a Lumière Brothers or a Mitchell and Kenyon film then, so in the future Chinese historians will be able to turn to 24 City or Still Life and say: “So that’s what life was like for our grandparents.”     

24 City is in UK cinemas from 30th April.

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