Saturday, August 22, 2009

24 City

Rejoice! The new Pacific Film Archive calendar for September & October is available online. Included are series focusing on undershown auteurs William Klein, Ermanno Olmi, and Julian Duvivier (I've seen one film apiece from these gentlemen, each quite solid). The Alternative Visions series starts back up again on Tuesdays, and is joined by tributes to avant-garde heavyweights Bill Viola and Robert Beavers, both of whom will appear in person, the latter in conversation with the legendary critic P. Adams Sitney. There's also a massive set of British crime films, a few titles overlapping with the ones being brought to the Castro Sep. 11-16, but you'll have to attend both venues to see them all.

Those may be the most high-profile series of the season, but the upcoming months will also be dotted by smaller series, one-shot events, and the reliable "non-series" A Theatre Near You, which returns director Jia Zhang-Ke's film 24 City to the site of his extensive retrospective one year ago. 24 City is also playing the Camera 3 in San Jose this week, inspiring me to dust off an unpublished capsule I wrote earlier this year after seeing the film at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (well before the director's controversial decision to pull out of the Melbourne Film Festival this summer). Here it is:

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As Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke's stature on the international film festival circuit has increased with each release, his films have blurred the line between fiction and documentary in ever more intriguing ways. Perhaps because, as his auteur status has attracted attention from a censorious government that once officially disapproved of films like Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, it's these frictions that provide Jia's best outlet for critique.

Jia's latest film 24 City takes the form of a documentary about the dismantling of a munitions factory code-named "420" in pre-earthquake Chengdu, to make way for a ritzy condominium complex. Interviews with former workers, conducted mostly in long, static shots, join together in an oral history going back generations. The clanging and hammering sounds of the factory's final, self-destructive task are often heard in the background. Sequences are bridged together by brief skits or by city-poems. Songs re-appropriated from films such as John Woo's 1989 The Killer and Peter Chan's 2005 Perhaps Love underscore the connection between recent Chinese history and its pop culture mirror.

But documentary conventions are questioned by the director's decision to have actors play interview subjects. Is the factory saleswoman who recalls how workplace gossip quashed her first love affair a Joan Chen look-alike, as she says she is? Or is she actually Joan Chen? (answer: yes.) By crossing the imaginary boundary between "real" and "constructed" cinema, Jia turns nostalgia into barely-veiled dissent, and creates a testimony filled with contradictions appropriate for our modern age.


  1. Welcome back to the world of macroblogging. Nice to know Twitter hasn't completely absorbed you.