By robbiefreeling | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog September 27, 2008 at 4:55AM
To follow Jia Zhangke’s career closely is to witness a great, restless artist wriggle out of a number of our film culture’s pigeonholes. Despite his reputation as a master in the school of austerity—that art-house mode which has encouraged artistic complacency and political indifference in several of his peers—Jia’s aesthetics remain under construction and open to the full range of cinematic possibilities. At a time when the other leading figures of Chinese-language cinema, including Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang, seem fully committed to (or, in a few cases, trapped by) the styles and themes that made them famous, with each new film Jia is adding new tools to his art in order to renegotiate his relationship to realism, and to make the quest for personal and national truth ever-renewing rather than predictable and monolithic. His latest, 24 City, is a blend of documentary and fiction that omits some of the main tropes we associate with those genres, aspiring to neither vérité nor conventional plotting. Performed by both nonprofessionals and established actors, the film gathers stories across three generations of workers connected to a state-owned factory in Chengdu, now being converted into a luxury apartment complex. Their revelations range from devastating memories of long-lost family members to bittersweet recollections of puppy love, and the common struggle of all the interviewees seems to be (as one woman puts it) to “smile through one’s tears,” at least on camera—an attitude that lends the film its schizophrenic sense of boundless hope and suppressed tragedy. But what begins as a straightforward oral-history project results in a rocky marriage between seemingly irreconcilable impulses, and a disorienting provocation on the sacredness of truth in the documentary form.