For more than 15 years, China's Jia Zhang-Ke has created intensely personal, socially aware films in his native country; quite a feat, considering he hasn't turned 40 yet. The acclaimed director is at the forefront of China's "Sixth Generation" cinema movement, which typically produces down-to-earth, documentary-style films that take place within working-class urban locales. Following a series of three short films between 1994 and 1996, Jia Zhang-Ke completed his first feature film Xiao Wu (AKA Artisan Pickpocket) the following year---and true to his roots, the film emphasized China's ever-changing landscape. The director's follow-up efforts included Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), which maintained similar themes and were created outside of the confines of major studios. The World (2004) broke tradition and was a state-approved film---and luckily for the director, his project was well-received by viewers, international critics and the government.
After a series of experimental digital films and documentary-style productions like Still Life (2006), Jia Zhang-Ke completed 24 City (2008), which serves up a mixture of historical fact and carefully-rendered drama. This feature-length production focuses on Factory 420, a 50 year-old aviation parts factory Sichuan's capital city, Chengdu. The factory is due for demolition, and a lavish apartment complex (named "24 City") will appear in its place. This, of course, will lead to thousands of lost jobs. Dozens of participants---former employees of Factory 420, for the most part---were interviewed during the film's production, while only nine of them tell their stories during 24 City.
Interestingly enough, some of these participants are portrayed by actors (including Joan Chen and Jia favorite Tao Zhao), who recall their memories of factory life, whether real or partially fabricated. It's an interesting mixture of stories flanked by stunning shots of dilapidated urban landscapes, pop music cues and vintage photographs. Despite the film's leisurely pace, there's plenty to take in, especially since the real and fabricated stories aren't always clearly distinguished. If you're completely unfamilar with the subject matter, some preliminary research and/or a second viewing will be almost mandatory.
Those not in the right mood, however, will find 24 City fairly dull during many of its quiet stretches. I'll be completely honest: my first attempted viewing of the film took place late one evening, and it proved to be the wrong time to dive into this lyrical hybrid of drama and documentary. However, the benefit of rest and total concentration certainly helped matters: 24 City felt much more appropriate during sunlit hours (or overcast afternoons, at the very least). The poetic nature of the interviews, when paired with the film's excellent, down-to-earth cinematography, creates a sleepy but sobering atmosphere that makes 24 City worth seeking out. This may not be a film that you'll return to on a regular basis...but providing the conditions are right, its impact is tough to duplicate.
Presented on DVD by Cinema Guild, 24 City arrives on DVD in grand fashion; in many respects, it's obvious that the production team members are fans of the Criterion style of presentation. Not only does the film itself sport a near-flawless transfer and a decent pair of audio mixes, but many of the bonus features and sub-menus resemble Criterion's way of doing things. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays, 24 City looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish. The film's natural color palette appears accurate, black levels are rock solid and image detail is nicely rendered. Digital problems (including edge enhancement and pixellation) are virtually nonexistent and the transfer is progressive. It's one of the better visual presentations in recent months of reviewing; combined with the striking cinematography, 24 City is truly a fine-looking film and DVD.
The audio presentation is low-key, but it still gets the job done. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (with an optional 2.0 Stereo mix, both in the film's original Mandarin), this dialogue-driven film features a crisp, minimalist soundstage with plenty of silence along the way. The sparse soundtrack rarely fights for attention, creating a satisfying atmosphere overall. Optional English captions are provided during the main feature only.
Also here is a rather lengthy Interview with director Jia Zhang-Ke (1.33:1, 45:32), moderated by L.A. Weekly film critic Scott Foundas during the 2008 New York Film Festival. This is a fairly interesting session with plenty of ground covered about the director's successful career and his pre-filmmaking years; unfortunately, the audio quality leaves a bit to be desired. His words are translated into English on-location and many get lost in the shuffle. It's still worth a listen, but a proper subtitle translation would've made this substantially more enjoyable.
Last but not least is the film's original Theatrical Trailer (1.78:1 anamorphic, 2:55), which captures the general feel of the film perfectly without giving much away. All bonus features are presented with forced English subtitles when applicable.
It's certainly not for all tastes, but Jia Zhang-Ke's 24 City hits most of the right notes during its leisurely 106-minute running time. The lulls are almost hypnotic at times, though the presentation style and subject matter require total attention to appreciate. Luckily, Cinema Guild's DVD package offers a decent amount of support to help sway those on the fence: in addition to a nearly-flawless technical presentation, we're also treated to a handful of appropriate bonus features. A solid package for the asking price...but at the risk of repeating myself, 24 City is not for all tastes. Firmly Recommended for fans of foreign drama and documentaries.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.