By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Directed by Zhang-ke Jia, “24 City” is a Chinese film that blends documentary and fiction. It opens with a grim tone: Factory workers heat and hammer metal, and shots reveal people lingering alone and in smaller groups. The film follows individuals as they recount the story of how a factory turned into an apartment complex, a reflection of how China modernized.
The rise and fall of Factory 420, as the workers call it, takes shape through personal memories. The factory never appears in its entirety. Each person followed tells a story. Their individual tales weave together to portray a more complete story behind the factory.
A crowd gathers inside Factory 420’s on-site theater, where a boss speaks. After 50 years, production has halted, and a huge housing project has been planned to replace the factory.
The film cuts to an old repairman, Xikun He, as he climbs a staircase. He sits in a deserted room and speaks of his boss, Master Wang. Wang trained workers to make their own tools. He taught them to use and reuse everything.
The repairman remembers Wang warmly. However, when he visits Master Wang, he finds his old boss in poor health due to old age. “I wouldn’t have known you if we’d passed on the street,” says Master Wang to the younger man. Xikun He holds Wang’s hands. He tries not to cry. Others cry or try to stifle tears in “24 City.” They weep for the end of an era. Life in Factory 420 certainly had its hardships. Grime plagued the walls. The work was often exhausting.
But this was the only life its workers knew. Families and friendships grew and bloomed for decades inside Factory 420’s walls. Without it, their existence would no longer hold any shape.
Factory 420 made parts for war machines. It thrived during the Korean War. Further demand came when China attacked Vietnam in 1979. The factory later fell on hard times, and switched to domestic products like washing machines.
Lijun Hou worked 30 years at the factory. She was in the first wave of layoffs. Her bosses threw her a nice party, but they forgot about her. She eventually had to peddle flowers on the street.
“We’re a three-person family. Standard size,” says Hou regarding her home life. Alert viewers will spot the reference to China’s “one-child” policy, restricting parents to a single offspring.
Halfway through “24 City,” the director replaces real factory workers with professional actors. Their big names lend popularity, but the stories’ validity is weakened when these fictitious elements appear.
Viewer may smile when a woman called Little Flower talks about her life and her loneliness. Men nicknamed her “Little Flower” because she looked like a movie character by the same name, played by Joan Chen. Interestingly, the Little Flower character in “24 City” is played by the real Joan Chen.
Such distractions disrupt the film’s goal of telling a true story. Film stars cannot replace the sto-ries of the true and honest workers.
When the film sticks to its first idea, it shines. Too bad the director couldn’t let the workers star in their own movie.
See if you can keep from weeping when He holds Master Wang’s hands. See if you can keep from wondering what price we pay for substituting celebrities for real people at the movies. ♦
“24 City” plays May 9–May 14 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. For ticket prices and showtimes visit www.nwfilmforum.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.