Friday, 14 May 2010

24 city (d. zhang ke jia, w. zhang ke jia & yongming zhai)

My appetite for reviewing appears to be waning somewhat, so my apologies if this is at all cursory. Perhaps its the result of the political manoeuvrings which have been occuring in the UK of late. Strange to think that as a nation we once held sway over China, forcibly addicting its citizens to opium, in one of the more benevolent phases of British imperialism. Now it's China which is finally looking outwards, imposing its mark upon the world. I have no figures but its said they own most of Africa, I know they own large parts of Australia, and are no doubt active in Latin America. Over the course of what seems like no time at all they've become the world's greatest commercial power, or have initiated the process of becoming it. The transformation seems astonishing, but then one of the conundrums of ageing is that it's only as you yourself devour the years alloted to you that you begin to realise how fast history operates, and how impermanent are things that in your youth seemed to have been the same for ever.

All of which is apropos of Zhang Ke Jia's film, which is a study of an old weapons factory in the growing city of Chengdu. Zhang films the process of its destruction as it makes way for a swanky housing/ commercial development. In the course of the film he stages interviews with workers (apparently played by actors) who recount some anecdote from their past, thereby bringing the social fabric of the factory to life from its inception in the fifties up to its recent closure. These stories are counter-pointed by images of the factory as the last workers work there, engaged in the rugged labour of heavy industry. Rings of molten metal are beaten into shape, before the workers leave and the space becomes a kind of mausoleum to the China which has now slipped away.

Zhang's film is lengthy and far from an easy watch. Its pace is slow and there's little attempt to dramatise the stories, which are told by speaking heads in fixed locations (a bus, a hairdresser's etc.) Yet the film has a subtle and gradually accumulating potency, with the final subject, a pretty young buyer who owns a new VW Beetle talking about how she finally grew up when she realised she had to take responsibility for her parents. Which suggests the film's message is that the present cannot be called mature, or developed, until it learns to respect the past. The dangers and ironies of vast material growth at the expense of spiritual (for want of a better word) development are reaffirmed by the closing vision of modern Chengdu, a sprawling, characterless seeming city of glass skyscrapers and flyovers. This is a documentary of sorts, but it is also a critique of onrushing history and the way in which China is changing.

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