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When weapons factory 420 becomes 24 City of the future

THE demolition of an old weapons factory in Chengdu and the rise of a highrise luxury development in its place is the focus of director Jia Zhangke's latest film about momentous changes in China, writes Wang Jie.

Director Jia Zhangke is fascinated by China's modern ruins ?? especially those making way for "progress."

His focus is the ordinary people who live in them and what their actions and settings say about China's dramatic social transformations.

Jia, a six-generation director of art-house films, is famous for "Still Life," about the destruction of villages and transformed lives that made way for the Three Gorges Dam.

He is popular among intellectuals in China and abroad, but his films are not a big draw at home - too downbeat, no dramatic script, not fun and entertaining.

In his latest film, "24 City," Jia turns his lens on the ongoing demolition of a massive 50-year-old state-owned weapons factory complex in Chengdu, Sichuan Province - and the luxury high-rise community that will take its place. It has a documentary "feeling" and drama.

Reports indicate that box office is pretty good for Jia - around 1 million yuan (US$146,200) since it opened in cinemas on March 6.

It could be his most successful film so far in terms of box-office sales.

At its peak, Factory No. 420 employed 30,000 workers, it was a self-contained city. The fashionable apartments, skyscrapers, restaurants and entertainment centers known as 24 City pay homage to modern, materialistic China.

The factory has been closed and the land was sold to a developer in 2005.

None of the factory workers could afford to live there - they are being relocated.

The two-hour film tells the story of the human relocation and the demolition of industrial plants, workshops, warehouses, housing, businesses and other parts of the 420 complex.

It's told through the narratives of retired factory workers and three actresses of different ages, Joan Chen, Lu Liping and Zhao Tao.

It mixes interviews with workers with scenes.

The sprawling 420 complex was part of Chairman Mao Zedong's efforts starting around 1965 to move industry and defense capacity away from vulnerable coastal regions and relocate them far inland.

The film "24 City" demonstrates the director's interest in ordinary people, especially those at the bottom of the economic and social ladders.

As in earlier films, Jia focuses on relatively distant and forgotten times in modern China, and the people who were swept along. The people whose lives were changed by the Three Gorges Dam Project - that seems so long ago - and those whose lives were shaped by 420 in an earlier drive to build China - that too belongs to a different era. And now 24 City is changing more lives.

Jia swiftly and smartly mixes real characters with fictional ones to portray the sweeping changes in society and vicissitudes of their lives in over five decades of building weapons for China's defense.

He successfully integrates documentary technique and fictional elements. In real time he streams silent footage of real-life retired workers' interviews together with views of the new high-rise construction sites.

The film opens with interviews with two real-life retired workers. They represent the first generation that poured their lives and passion into "building up a new country." Their lives were simple, they worked hard and believed in ideals.

However, using a sit-down, face-to-the-camera interview, especially in a fictional film, can be tricky to integrate in an overall work. It lacks a strong scenario or backdrop to draw viewers in.

Interviews with the workers then leave little space for the actresses to develop the characters. Interviews, monologues and acted scenes are interspersed.

A series of monologues, each five to 10 minutes long, tests the screenwriter and acting.

Director Jia received help in scriptwriting from Zhai Yongming, a famed poet.

Actress Chen, the first generation of the "China dolls" in Hollywood, plays middle-aged Changhua (literally "factory flower," the factory beauty) at 420. She goes from Shanghai to work in Chengdu after graduation.

Her startling beauty wins her many male admirers and for years she thrives on the attention. But Changhua ages, she has no husband and family and she faces the loneliness of life alone, a single woman - so sad in China.

Chen has created marvelous and convincing characters throughout her career.

This is no exception, and we believe her to be a retired worker from 420.

Lu, another well-known actress, portrays a younger woman whose child was lost as the family made its way from the coast to inland. It was an ordered mass migration.

At first, Lu calmly describes the advantages of being a worker at 420 because of the factory's special benefits in the late 1970s.

Then she recounts how it all started: She, her husband and son were ordered to leave their coastal home and join 420.

The first leg of the journey was by sea.

Suddenly she begins talking about her little boy who was lost after the ship was driven ashore. The controlled emotion, the tears tell it all. We need no details.

Compared with the two "big sister" actress, Jia's favored actress, Zhao, is a bit weaker as a rebellious young girl whose parents are assigned to 420.

Although director Jia, around 39, says he never cares about box office, he claims "the screening of any of my movies is a triumph for me."

His low-budget films are far from the mainstream. They are usually marked by the absence of a dramatic script or entertaining effects.

This time, Jia doesn't have to worry about budget for "24 City." The main investor, Huarun Group, is the real estate developer of the old 420 factory site. His 30-year project is a luxurious residential, commercial community, with entertainment, art and all the amenities.

Jia is straightforward in promoting his investor, as Huarun Group is an integral part of the story, a leading player.

It represents both the old factory and its future.

No doubt, the film does not play up the conflict and confrontation of laid-off 420 workers and the real estate developer of 24 City.


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