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Factory Elegy: '24 City' Looks Back With Tenderness

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis was exactly on point when she described Beijing director Jia Zhang-ke as “one of the most original filmmakers working today.” Working above and underground with quiet audacity and a refined eye, Jia seems to have undertaken the sizable task of documenting a changing China -- with a clear-eyed attention to the grit and banality of daily life that Italian neo-realists and documentarians can appreciate, and a lyricism that poets can applaud. A product of Chinese cinema’s so-called Sixth Generation, Jia appears to be working toward a hybrid cinema that seamlessly fuses the real and ineffable. From One Day in Beijing, his first documentary short on Tiananmen Square tourists, to Unknown Pleasures, his career-making examination of China’s one-child policy, to Still Life, his award-winning meditation at the human dramas behind the Three Gorges Dam project -- with forays into feature films and forthcoming attempts at gangster and historical movies -- Jia has kept his eye to the streets, while Unknown Pleasures remains unreleased, officially, in his homeland.  

With 24 City, Jia turns his gaze to Chengdu -- the provincial city that once made the munitions that fed, for instance, China’s efforts during the Korean War. Now the sprawling Sichuan urban center is perhaps better known, stateside, for its work for Silicon Valley chipmakers and its electronic R&D. Named for the luxury high-rise planned at the site of a huge, state-owned munitions factory, 420, 24 City takes a lingering look at the displaced lives that scatter to the wind, as the concrete crumbles, the buildings are gutted and the past begins to evaporate.



Jia incorporates snippets of poetry -- both The Dream of the Red Chamber and Yeats -- with achingly gorgeous high-def video shots of deteriorating factory spaces. There are moments of jarring beauty -- as when a girl roller-skates to melancholy Mandarin downtempo on a rooftop at night -- as well as interviews with real workers, mixed with a pivotal trio of fictional monologues by three women. These monologues are the grounding linchpins of 24 City -- the moments that will leave their soft imprint on the viewer: Dali (Liping Lu), who loses her young son in the rush to supposed progress; Gu Minhua or “Little Flower” (played, astonishingly, by San Francisco resident Joan Chen, the original star of the seminal 1979 Chinese film Little Flower), whose beauty can’t stave off loneliness in the crowd; and Su Na (Jia’s muse Tao Zhao), a personal shopper who has embraced an ultracapitalist China and vows to buy some day buy an apartment for her parents. “I know I can do it,” she swears. “I’m the child of workers.”   

24 City opens Friday, July 31 at Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., SF, (415) 267-4893, and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 644-2992. For showtimes and more information, go to landmarktheatres.com.