By Jasmine Hu, PhD Candidate at Harvard University
Jia Zhangke, leading filmmaker of the Sixth Generation movement of Chinese cinema, features in his work the urban spaces and dispossessed populations of contemporary China. His 2008 film 24 City examines a physical site in Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan Province, caught in a moment of transition from the state-owned and managed Communist aircraft manufacturing “Factory 420” to a privatized deluxe apartment living complex called “24 City.” This site’s material transformation bears witness to various thematic narratives of a society in the midst of rapid change: from Maoism to state capitalism, from the collective to individual, from production to consumption. Here I will argue for a re-interpretation of the film to forefront a heretofore neglected discourse — poetry — that is at the crux of the film’s relationship to memory, time, and space.
24 City takes on an unconventional narrative strategy of docufiction, a strategy that film critics by and large did not respond favorably to. The film follows a documentary format, interviewing eight men and women spanning three different generations, each with a personal connection to the aeronautics factory. Echoing the Deleuzean “power of the false,” Jia intersperses footage of real life interviewees and inhabitants of Factory 420 with performances of famous Chinese actors and actresses. These actors who have played legendary emperors, empresses, and warlords, are instead reenvisioned as the former worker-inhabitants of the factory, members of a dispossessed group that the historical narrative of a rapidly developing China leaves behind.
The film’s most obviously self-referential instance of “docufiction” is the interview of former factory worker Gu Minhua. In her youth, the other workers of the factory nicknamed Gu “Little Flower,” based on an observed resemblance to the actress Joan Chen, who plays the Communist revolutionary heroine “Little Flower” in her 1979 film debut. The interviewee Gu Minhua, however, is not a real life person, but a fictional character played by the very same actress, Joan Chen.
This docufictional moment acts as a microcosm of the film’s greater narrative about competing visions of temporality: from socialism to state-sponsored capitalism, from ideal to real, from filmic time to biological time. The film’s ideological slant regarding these lapses, though, is difficult to pin down: is this blending of fiction and truth a subtle condemnation of and resistance to a popular capitalist culture’s encroachment upon the everyday, and of cinematic fiction’s inability to live up to its promises? Or is simply a more neutral observation on the prophetic and inevitable power of both pop culture and the act of naming?
To further develop the semiotics of 24 City’s “docufiction,” I turn to an underexplored discourse that nevertheless suffuses the film: poetry. While the 24 City’s blending of truth and fiction is frequently discussed, less noted is the discursive hybridity of the film, as a text that is an accumulation of diverse media — equal parts documentary, cinematic fiction, portraiture, still life, and, in particular, poetry. Jia’s choice of cowriter for 24 City is not a fellow filmmaker but the poet, Zhai Yongming, a Chengdu City native who was rusticated during the Cultural Revolution in rural Sichuan. Poetic citations of their mutual choosing are interspersed throughout the film, displayed in Godardian intertitles that transition the film between interview subjects. These intertitles feature modern Chinese poets, some older imperial Chinese poetry, as well as translated Western ones like Yeats.
Close reading reveals that several poetic intertitles share the same strategy of “docufiction.” In reading them against the original text of the poems they cite, the quotations of the intertitles often don’t match the original. Instead they freely modify and particularize the original lines:
Take the first line quoted, from Ouyang Jianghe, from the poem Boli gongchang (Glass Factory:
整个 造 飞机 的 工厂 是 一 个 巨大 的 眼球 ，劳动 是 其中 最 深 的 部分 。
The entire aeronautics factory is a great eyeball, labor is its deepest part.
The original reads:
整个 玻璃 工厂 是 一 只 巨大 的 眼珠 ， 劳动 是 其中 最 黑 的 部分
The entire glass factory is a great eyeball, labor is its darkest part. Not a huge change: “glass factory” turns into “aeronautics factory,” and “darkest part” becomes “deepest part”. The situational context of the poem is remade to correspond directly to the film’s subject matter. Here’s another, more drastic case of modified citation: The final shot of the film is the city of Chengdu’s skyline. Projected onto it are the final lines by Sichuanese poet Wan Xia, in the poem Benzhi (Essential Nature):
成都 ， 仅 你 消逝 的 一面 ， 已经 足以 让 我 荣耀 一生 。
Chengdu, even your disappearing aspect, is enough to glorify my existence.
The original reads:
仅 我 腐朽 的 一面 就 够 你 享用 一生。
even my decaying aspect, is enough to enrich your life.
Here the lines are more actively rewritten. The original poem, an address to an unspecified “you,” most likely Wan Xia’s reader, is about life, aging, and questions of truth and the “essential nature” of things. In the film’s epigraph the pronouns are inversed, and the line is instead changed to an apostrophe to the city of Chengdu, the same skyline shown behind the text. A poem that was originally not about urban space or place, but instead about the figure of the poet himself, becomes instead reoriented into a direct address to the city. In the original lines, the subject is aging and undergoing the natural process of decay. In 24 City, the subject of the city is instead vanishing, suggesting a more sudden material obsolescence. The modified lines better capture a motivating fear of the film, of a state capitalist progression that marches forward while erasing and obliterating the past, substituting natural, biological rhythms with artificial demolition. The new lines resist the narrative of history as natural progression. But another poetic citation potentially undermines this narrative of resistance, rendering this device more ambivalent — perhaps the most significant citation, as it gives the film its title of 24 City. This is a couplet, from an unnamed “ancient poem” quoted early in the film: “The cherished hibiscus of 24 city, in full bloom/ Chengdu shone and prospered.” But so far as I’ve researched, this couplet does not actually exist. It does not come from any existing premodern poem, and has no precedent. Nevertheless the lines are later recited by the real estate agent at the housing development of the new apartment complex, 24 City. The couplet thus becomes a commercialized language, poetry used in the service of advertisement: the prophetic language of Chengdu’s “prosperity”— and its potentially totalizing erasure that comes along with it — is thereby fulfilled through the construction of 24 City as both space and film.
The number “24” is the most prominent “fiction” that the couplet generates– unlike the hibiscus flower, the number 24 is not associated with Chengdu, and instead seems like a deliberate attempt at commercial branding to evoke a sense of modernity and urbanity. 24 immediately suggests the hours in a day, and the constant commercial activity and rapid pace of life of the modern city: “24/7 service,” “open 24 hours.” The digital clock moves linearly, forward, up to the number 24, but then immediately erases and forgets its progress by going back to 1. Yet this number can also speak to an alternate, more ancient system of temporality: the 24 solar terms of the ancient Chinese lunisolar calendar, a cycle that reflects the passing of the seasons through tangible natural phenomena.
Perhaps these two systems of temporality suggest a resistance to the easy narrative of rapid urban transformation that 24 City’s subject matter, and the story of modern China as a whole, too readily invites. Rather than a linear progressive trajectory from socialist factory to urban development complex, Maoism to state capitalism, collective to individual, industrial to neoliberal, these temporalities exist simultaneously within the urban landscape, interacting and circulating within each other. Rejecting synchronicity, the film demonstrates the urban topography’s harboring of not merely the diachronic, but the polychronic. Far from what the obvious metaphors of old buildings reduced to rubble would suggest, the “past” may be dispossessed, but it is never actually fully obliterated or demolished; rather, it lingers on concurrently with and within state capitalism’s aggressive futurism. It only seeks a poetic that recognizes it.
The film’s final interviewee is presented as an archetype of the modern state capitalist consumer: a young, fashionable personal shopper who plans to buy a glossy new apartment in 24 City. But this illustration of consumption is ultimately revealed to be an act of filial piety: she wants the apartment not for herself to live in, but for her mother, who was a worker at Factory 420 and will return to live at 24 City. What appeared to be a narrative of linear progression is really one of circular return, and as Factory 420 transforms into 24 City, 24 City cycles back.
24 City. Dir. Zhangke Jia. The Cinema Guild, 2008.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma II. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985. Ouyang Jianghe. Doubled Shadows: selected poetry of Ouyang Jianghe. Trans. Austin Woerner. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press; Hong Kong: Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 2012.
Wan, Xia, ed. Hou meng long shi quan ji. 后朦胧诗全集. Chengdu: Sichuan jiao yu chu ban she, 1993.