26 October 2008 | freeds
Cowardly depiction of a factory closure in China
Chris Knipp's review of "24 City" (this film's English title) contains many useful details, which I need not recapitulate. It also contains some misstatements, which I would like to correct, and omits the sort of political insights which this interested observer of Chinese politics since the late 1950s would like to supply.
Among the misstatements: to say that the "dim-witted" (i.e. semi-senile) retired worker who receives a long-delayed visit from his former apprentice was a "master of the factory" gives an inaccurate impression. The man was the head of a production team, not of the entire factory. While the film certainly is quite slow-moving, it is an exaggeration to say that "one person or a group look(ed) silently into the camera for a minute or so." I also don't agree that the film tells a "tale of repression," not in the true political sense of the word, anyway. Had the workers waged a mass struggle to convert their factory to some other use or, at least, to move their jobs to some other site, then we might have seen some actual repression (attacks by cops, arrests etc.) — if the director had the guts to show it to us, that is. Finally, where did Chris get "Later (Factory) 420 was retooled to produce peacetime products such as washing machines."? Neither my wife nor I noticed any such comment in the film.
The scene mentioned above between former master and apprentice was extremely touching. But were these men the actual workers or were they actors? As soon as I became aware that actors were delivering some of the "interviews," my opinion of this film plummeted. Chris accepted this as necessary: "Actors are used for some of the people because Jia interviewed 130 people and had to create composites." "Had to"? Were the originals not photogenic enough? Did they not tell their stories engagingly enough? Or was the director so inept that he didn't get some of the interviews on film? Later, though, Chris said that this method "undercut the sense of realism." And how! The New York Film Festival's (NYFF) introduction was similarly divided about whether the film was more documentary or more fictional. "24 City's" most blatantly phony "testimony" was that of "Little Flower," a mature female "factory worker," played by the widely-known, glamorous actress Joan Chen. When "Little Flower" relates her unlucky-in-love history, she mentions that her coworkers said she looked just like the actress Joan Chen! Cute, no? The fact that director JiaZhangKe (the format in which his name appears in the film's credits) wasted time and effort on this completely dispensable item reflects the weakness underlying his whole approach to the project.
Chris said that the director's previous work "seems to have given way (here) to adverts for capitalism." It seemed to me that the director evinced a significant ideological dilemma: either he doesn't know exactly where he stands or, if he does, he doesn't have the guts to tell us. The film contains several HINTS of nostalgia for the early years of the People's Republic, including the description by a long-time plant security official of Factory 420's important role in producing jet engines for Chinese and North Korean military aircraft during the "struggle against U.S. Imperialism" (i.e. what the U.S. calls the "Korean War"). Imagine — there still are people in China who are capable of using such terminology! Then there is the brief scene of a group of middle-aged women (workers from Factory 420?) singing "The Internationale" (which, contrary to the NYFF's introduction, is NOT a "pop song"). Who-when-where-why? Sorry, the director doesn't bother to provide such details.
What the director DOES NOT tell us is at the heart of what is wrong with this film. During the Q&A session after the film's NYFF premier, JiaZhangKe mentioned that the destruction of Factory 420 resulted in the loss of their jobs by about 30,000 workers. Why the hell didn't he put this little detail into the film? Were these workers offered other jobs or retraining for such? Did they receive severance pay and if so, how much? Did they receive unemployment compensation and, if so, how much and for how long? Did they lose their factory-associated housing, medical care and schooling for their children? Such information would have been useful to those interested in the sociology and political economy of contemporary China but providing it was not on JiaZhangKe's agenda.
What was JiaZhangKe's purpose in showing us the visit by the stylish young professional shopper to her mother's factory, where she sees for the first time the miserable, oppressive nature of her mother's job and weeps? Was he simply promoting sympathy for the older generation or did he think that the "transition to a market economy" will eliminate the need for such degrading labor? (A close look at the vast number of numbingly repetitive jobs in the highly capitalized modern factories of the "world's workshop" would dispel any such illusion.)
Why does "24 City" only contain interviews with workers laid off from Factory 420 in the 1990s and earlier? Why no interviews with ANY of the thousands being laid off as Factory 420 is torn down to make room for a five-star hotel? Might such workers have been too angry? Might they have made intemperate comments about China's rulers? The cowardliness involved in this deficiency is breathtaking! JiaZhangKe poses as sympathetic to those who suffer from capitalist development but doesn't want to go too far in that direction because he is not completely opposed to this process. Nor does he want to cut off his access to the lucrative capitalist world film market. His invocation of the mystical, reactionary poetry of W. B. Yeats is but one signal of his orientation to that market and of his willingness to "go along."