'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, October 30, 2009

Film Notes: 24 City 

Prior to 1979, China pursued economic and social policies consistent with the creation of an industrialized proletariat, often associated with the production of armaments, within a planned economy. Peasants subsidized it through the supply of agricultural commodities at state controlled prices while subject to restrictions upon their movement that made it extremely difficult for them to leave their villages. With the increasing emphasis upon market liberalization by Deng Xiaoping and his successors, state owned industry entered a period of inexorable decline, resulting in plant closures and commercial redevelopment.

Several years ago, Wang Bing profiled this phenomenon in his epic, West of the Tracks, a nine hour documentary set in the massive Tie Xie industrial district in Shenyang, Manchuria. With an astonishing visual and narrative sensibility, one marked by neorealistic characterization and striking industrial compositions, Bing patiently presented the last months before the closure of the few remaining factories in the district, the attachment that the workers had for them and the breaking of the iron rice bowl, as housing for the workers was being torn down to make way for commercial development. A communal, collective way of life was destroyed as part of the price for admission into a neoliberal, globalized economy. Bing gently presented the workers to us with an intimacy absent sentimentality or voyeurism.

In the US and Europe, indeed, perhaps, most of the rest of the world, the Cultural Revolution is accepted as the most turbulent period of recent Chinese history, but Bing suggests that market liberalization has been equally traumatic. Jia Zhangke appears to have come to a similar conclusion in his most recent film, 24 City, or, perhaps, more accurately, he has determined that the entire period of Chinese Communist Party rule has been one characterized by the harsh ebbs and flows of modernization. He imputes great significance to his protagonists, the workers within Factory 420: The story of these characters represent the last fifty years of Chinese history.

As you might expect, Jia is being hyperbolic. The peasant experience is pretty much absent in 24 City. Even so, the experiences of the workers of Factory 420 opens a window towards understanding the social transformation resulting from the embrace of market liberalization, as he interviewed over 130 people who worked there. The film itself is an innovative blend of documentary and fiction, with Jia presenting the stories of four people connected to the factory through five of the interviewees themselves and four subsequent ones through actors and actresses. He made the decision to adopt this technique because of his belief that history is a mixture of fact and imagination. As a consequence of the incorporation of fiction within a documentary narrative structure, the film is more straightforward than Jia's previous ones which are noteworthy for their elliptical storytelling methods, although engagement with the content of what the interviewees, both real and fictional, say presents the challenges common to his other films. His mastery of color, along with his feel for architecture and interior design, are everywhere in evidence as expressed through his compelling compositions, with the most startling departure being his interweaving of more realistic scenes, such as an interview of an elderly former 420 employee traveling across Chengdu on a bus, seemingly recorded with a hand held digital camera in one long take.

By way of background, Factory 420 was opened in Chengdu in southwestern China in 1958 for the purpose of manufacturing parts for military aircraft. Prior to that time, facilities for the manufacture of military weapons were located in Manchuria, but, after such facilities were subjected to American bombing during the Korean War, the Chinese Communist Party adopted Mao's strategy of moving such production outside the reach of both American and Soviet airstrikes. One suspects that he was influenced by the Soviet experience in World War II, wherein much of the country's industrial platform was successfully transported away from the Ukraine to Siberia. During the 1980s, the workers shifted from producing military aircraft parts to appliances for the consumer market. Within the last few years, as has happened many times across China, investors brought forth a proposal for destroying the aging factory, relocating it somewhere else on the periphery of the city with modern manufacturing technology, and undoubtedly fewer workers, so as to free the land for residential and commercial development. The site was quite appealing, because of its centrality within the city, and the developers christened the project, 24 City, a name purportedly taken from a classical Chinese poem about Chengdu.

During an appearance at the New York Film Festival, Jia said that he first thought about making 24 City after he finished Platform in 2000:

This makes sense as the narratives of Platform and 24 City traverse similar terrain within their own unique social contexts. While Platform deals with the coming of age of a young music and theatrical troup forced to adapt to the rapid transformation from Maoism to the market in the 1980s, the industrial protagonists of 24 City live through a similar experience over a longer time frame. Both groups experience the turbulence of migration, market liberalization and the abandonment of collective ideals for individual ones. At the conclusion of each, a sympathetic young character, in Platform, a male one, in 24 City a female one, finds themselves esconsced in a new world of consumption and commodification, where, ironically, their new found individuality, and the individuality of those around them, have been fused into a mass of conformity. Baudrillard recognized such an outcome forty years ago when he observed that the young woman who selects a hair style popularized by a famous model or actress sees herself as engaging in act of personal expression even as thousands, if not tens of thousands, select the same one.

Prior to the production of the film, Jia also said that his purpose was to tell a story about three women in the 50s, the 70s, and the present day, as society makes the transition from collectivism to individualism. By doing so within a larger narrative that also interweaves male experience as well, he grounds gender within a complex mosaic of social transformation. First, there is the paradox that within the collectivism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, people retained a surprisingly high degree of individuality within their personal lives. Or, rather, people carved out more and more individual space for themselves over the course of this collectivist period, so much so that, upon the introduction of market liberalization by Deng, it disintegrated. By the beginning of the 21st Century, with the collectivism of the past a fading memory, the workers of Factory 420 discovered that they were now at the mercy of a new social system that considered them and their experiences as superfluous.

Consistent with this, Jia has also observed that it is important to record memories that are disappearing all over contemporary China. So, much so that he has abandoned previous notions of films as entertainment. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, and it is not limited to China. One of Fassbinder's greatest, most idiosyncratic films, In a Year of 13 Moons, confronts precisely this subject, the extent to which the lived experiences of marginalized people are erased with the passage of time, with the assistance of finance capital. In this film, even the wealthy Jewish commercial real estate developer, the man who had participated in the postwar destruction of many of Frankfurt's old residential neighborhoods and the expulsion of the people who lived in them, finds himself facing obsolescence and irrelevance. In the world according to Fassbinder, everyone faces the prospect of becoming marginalized as a result of the acceleration of social change generated by finance capital, an acceleration too seductive to reject. There are echoes of this in the conclusion of 24 City, as Jia's last, fictionalized interviewee, a young woman raised by 420 workers, looks out from the roof of a highrise office tower across an urbanized, commercialized Chengdu that spreads in all directions as far as the eye can see. No one, not even the investors and developers of 24 City itself, can resist the reductionist power of capitalism in its current form.

Second, upon hearing the interviewees, one is tempted to ascribe a male cast to the collectivism of the past and a female one to the individualism of the present. To a certain extent, this is true, as the female characters reveal the attainment of more and more independence with the passage of time. Accordingly, it is hard to resist associating such independence with the adoption of the market liberalization measures associated with neoliberalism. And, there is some truth to this, although the use of the word independence to describe it may not be entirely accurate. Instead, it is evident that women have obtained greater autonomy within their families and their societies during this neoliberal era, even as they, in most instances, become more and more financially insecure, and the interviewees give concrete expression to this over the course of the film: an elderly woman relates how difficult it was for her to find a job in the early 1990s are being laid off at Factory 420; a middle aged one describes how she left Shanghai to work in Factory 420 and refused all suitors for marriage, living, she says, as many of her divorced female friends who got married and divorced do; a young, twenty or thirtysomething one expresses her shock at seeing her mother, also laid off at Factory 420, working elsewhere under brutal conditions at a telephone pole manufacturing plant even as she now travels to Hong Kong as a fashion buyer for wealthy Chengdu women.

Conversely, men, who, during the collectivist period, were exhalted as the embodiment of a privileged, industrial proletariat, exhalted, in effect, for their physical labor, are now defined by other achievements. The first interviewee, one of the people who actually worked in Factory 420, relates the pride that he and his coworkers took in their work ethic, their skill and their commitment to one another. He recalls a beloved supervisor who told them that must not casually dispose of an old tool because they should remember all the hands through which the tool had passed. Upon being prodded by the off camera interviewer, he theerafter notes the Cultural Revolution, but says little about it, so it remains the story that remains untold, at least in a Chinese social context outside the literature generated by its educated victims, the source of memories that even Jia cannot record. The interviewee does, however, imply that his supervisor was removed from his position during the Cultural Revolution, and that it initiated an irreversible process whereby working class support for collectivization and the planned economy unraveled.

Fast forward to the last, fictional, male interviewee, and one hears something very different. Like the last, fictional female interviewee, he is a child of Factory 420 parents. He recalls being sent to Manchuria when he was 16 years old to apprentice in a factory there. He briefly enjoyed performing his assigned task, a repetitive one that involved smoothing a metal component of some kind. But, after about an hour, he decided that he wanted to go back to Chengdu, and, against the wishes of his father, he did so. Here, Jia takes aim at the fact that, unlike the generation of the first interviewee, subsequent generations of people connected to Factory 420 found work industrial manufacturing work increasingly tedious, and seized almost any opportunity to do something else. After returning home, the last interviewee succeeded in becoming an anchor of a popular Chengdu television program. Just as with the young woman who goes to Shanghai to select and buy clothes for wealthy Chengdu women, he is considered emblematic of a generation that now defines success by one's ability to escape the factory and obtain a well paying position within some form of the culture industry. In their shadow are millions upon millions of Chinese who continue to work in a contemporary manufacturing sector under conditions that Isabel Hinton has described as evocative of those of 1840s Manchester.

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