Linearity and Cyclicality in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (2008)

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.

Works Cited

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.


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Resisting Neoliberalism in Contemporary Lima: A Poetics of Vulnerability

By Ilka Kressner, University at Albany, State University of New York

Poetry is a compelling voice to help us gain insight into the massive political and urban changes that took place Lima, Peru, during the last thirty-five years. After the Communist Party of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) had launched its armed phase in 1980 in the highlands of Ayacucho, the Andean country suffered a civil war with serious human rights violations committed by guerrillas as well as the armed forces (1980-92). It was followed by the repressive regime of Alberto Fujimori, who only fled the country in 2000 during the third (illegal) term of his presidency, as the massive corruption of his government had become too visible. Starting in the 1990s, Peru saw the implementation of a series of extreme neoliberal policies that led to drastic demographic changes, such as rural exodus to the Metropolitan Lima region during the last 20 years.

Peru has a vigorous lyrical tradition marked by a keen awareness of everyday life, the fundamental impact of the daily grind for self-reflection and/as artistic creation. In this context, César Vallejo’s oeuvre, and in particular its inclusion of minute observations and everyday facts remains inspirational for today’s artists. The following strophe from his “Espergesia”/”Have You Anything to Say in Your Defense?” (Los heraldos negros/The Black Messengers; trans. James Wright, Neruda and Vallejo) illustrates a poetic stance of existential disquiet, rooted in, and deeply shaken by everyday life that resonates with contemporary poetic production:

They all know that I’m alive,

that I chew my food…and they don’t know

why harsh winds whistle in my poems,

the narrow uneasiness of a coffin,

winds untangled from the Sphinx

who holds the desert for routine questioning. (Neruda and Vallejo 216)

(Todos saben que vivo,/que mastico… Y no saben/por qué en mi verso chirrían,

oscuro sinsabor de féretro,/luyidos [sic] vientos/desenroscados de la Esfinge/preguntona del Desierto; Vallejo, The Complete Poetry. A Bilingual Edition 160)

With its entwinement of objects, human movements, spatial conditions, abstract terms and figurative images, this passage highlights vulnerability as a key characteristic of human life in the rapidly changing city (in the context of Vallejo’s work, that of Lima of roughly 1915-18). Now, a century later, in the context of a blatant neoliberalization, vulnerability remains key: it is both an immediate bodily experience of the individual and strategy to link and connect us with others. Thus, the awareness and articulation of vulnerability can become a source of interconnectedness toward a shared responsibility (in the sense of an ability to respond). I propose to read vulnerability as a strategy of resistance in the context of neoliberal realities in the Peruvian capital.

In her presidential address at the 2013 convention of The Modern Language Association, Marianne Hirsch spoke on “connective histories in vulnerable times.” Hirsch places vulnerability as a connector and link at the center of her analysis. For her, “vulnerability… can move us toward an ethics and politics of open-endedness and mobility, attuning us to the needs of the present…” (330). A theorist of trauma, the concept helps her to expand the retrospective view of trauma toward alternative temporalities that might “galvanize a sense of urgency about the need for change, now” (337).

Vulnerability as a shared presence of communication, attunement to the needs of the present in view of a traumatic past, and as an ethics of connectivity and relationality (Butler 99) help me to approach contemporary Peruvian poetry marked by a past traumata, the violence of the years between 1980 and 1992, the time of the armed conflict that was fought among the Shining Path, Peruvian armed forces, and the peasants of the highlands surrounding the region of Ayacucho (Theidon 5), and the violent silencing of that trauma during the Fujimori presidency. This poetry aims at connecting troubled perceptions and responding to shifting realities—from rural to urban, and from a past urban reality to that of the neoliberal megalopolis that developed during the mid to late1990s. In her study Intimate Enemies. Violence and Reconciliation in Peru, Kimberly Theidon notes that in Quechua, people oftentimes use the wod “the Sasachakuy tiempo (difficult time)” to describe the armed conflict, a time “bracketed as a finite period” (3). The general, vague term is a telling example of the lingering trauma. The “difficult time” is still in need of its verbal expression, particularly by those most affected by the armed conflict: almost 80% of the 69,280 people who had died during the years lived in rural areas and spoke Quechua. Contemporary poetry written in Spanish proposes a strategy to the lingering trauma, which I describe as that of a voiced vulnerability of the human body that connects beyond age, race, class; at times, it connects the living with the dead via the shared violability.

Among the poets whose works I study are Roxana Crisólogo, Miguel Ildefonso Huanca, Victoria Guerrero Peirano, and Carlos Villacorta Gonzáles. All reflect on the experience of coming of age (and rage) during the eventful 1980s to 2000. For instance, Crisólogo’s Ludy D (the title refers to the nickname of a guerrilla militant of the Shining Path movement) is written from the perspective of a young student in Lima of the 1980s. It centers on her conflicted relationship to the militant party; on the one hand the attraction of its intransigence, and on the other her repulsion to its cruelty. The context of Guerrero Peirano’s El mar, ese oscuro provenir (The Sea, this Obscure Future), on the other hand, is the Fujimori regime.

In her book The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima, Daniella Gandolfo describes the mood in the Lima of the mid-1990s as that of “euphoria. Imported vehicles had flooded the streets, high-rise buildings rose at breakneck speed, and while weekly bombings of electric towers in the outskirts of the city had for years kept entire neighborhoods in a recurrent state of darkness, the streets now seemed to glitter in a continual parade of light. Businesses had opened or reopened their doors, invigorated by foreign capital that poured into the country with Peru’s reinsertion in the international financial community…” (1‒2). Guerrero’s voice brings the urgency of the moment into the poetic realms and helps reflect on what lies behind the glitter and bright lights. While they refer to, and cite the discourse of publicity, many of her poems invoke the dark spaces of the brightly lit city, and describe for instance the solitude of the stars that have become invisible as a result of the light pollution. This poetry is marked by metaphors that stress the vulnerability of the human (and posthuman) body in the neoliberal city. In Guerrero Peirano’s poem significantly titled “ciudad sumergida” (submerged city), the lyrical voice describes how

a little boy felt the breath of the city

on its lonely walkways

nobody knows what those eyes have seen

but there are shoes, there is blood, there are kisses

on the dead ground… (my trans.)

(un niño ha sentido el aliento de la ciudad/por las azoteas solitarias/…/nadie sabe lo que han visto aquellos ojos/pero hay zapatos y sangre y besos/sobre la tierra muerta… (Guerrero, El mar 25)

Guerrero’s poetic city is depicted by a haunting image of a barren earth, with bodiless eyes that register human remains, such as shoes, blood, and kisses (or maybe remembrances of the latter). There are no bodies to be touched or voices to be heard. There is nothing but a verbal enumeration of a few material objects that point to those who were disappeared during the years of human rights violations from the 1980s to 2000. With the exception of the earth’s respiration, the scene is unanimated, posthuman and even spectral. Guerrero underscores the connecting power of vulnerability that links human bodies, abandoned objects and mutilated space. Space does not only reflect the memory of a massacre in an image of desolation. Moreover, it is connected to the body, being a requirement of the body to live. Here, I refer to Judith Butler’s description of space as “an infrastructural necessity and public good” (101). The juxtaposed portrayals of the human body, inhuman body and of the body of the environment underscores the connectedness among them. The act of mutilating one of the elements has a direct impact on the others. In the poem cited above, this shared vulnerability becomes an agent to mobilize, relate and recount.

The agency of the lyrical voices in the works by Crisólogo, Huanca, Guerrero Peirano, and Villacorta Gonzáles is far from that of a stable subject position. Oftentimes, poems become the sites of verbal enumerations of disposable items, gestures, glimpses, urging their readers to rearrange them. Words have no more healing power (I interpret this as a comment on the limitations of the various Truth and Reconciliation Reports). They are fragile, and similar to the human beings and the surroundings they describe, the words in Guerrero Peirano’s poem themselves face dismemberment, explosion or satiety. Vulnerability is explicitly put as a mode of relationality. It extends from, and joins the body of writing with the human body and the body of the city. In this way, vulnerability can connect and mobilize and, to return to Hirsch, “galvanize a sense of urgency about the need for change, now” (337).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions and Street Politics.” Differences in Common:

Gender, Vulnerability and Community. Ed. Joana Sabadell-Nieto and Marta Segarra.

Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014: 99-127.

Crisólogo, Roxana. Ludy D. Lima: Ediciones Flora Tristán, 2006.

Gandolfo, Daniella. The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima.

Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.

Guerrero Peirano, Victoria. El mar, ese oscuro provenir. Lima: El Santo Oficio, 2002.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Connective Histories in Vulnerable Times” PMLA. 129.3 (2014): 330-348.

Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Ed. Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry. A Bilingual Edition. Berkeley: University of California

Press, 2007.

Theidon, Kimberly. Intimate Enemies. Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

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