Bowled over

New movie tracks demise of the ‘iron rice bowl’

Bowled over

It's in the Cannes: director Jia Zhangke and leading ladies Zhao Tao and Joan Chen

A Westerner has to live 400 years to experience the same drastic changes that a Chinese “witnesses in 40.” So wrote the famed Chinese novelist Yu Hua in his novel, The Brothers.

It is unquestionably true that the past 40 years have witnessed enormous social and economic changes in China. In the 1960s the Cultural Revolution tried to obliterate 3,000 years of Confucian thought and practice. And in 1978 Deng Xiaoping’s own revolution began. A generation that had grown up with the notion that capitalism was evil was told to embrace the market.

The recently-released movie 24 City is about a factory caught up in the reforms that Deng unleashed. Made by acclaimed director Jia Zhangke it is part narrative and part documentary. The film was shot at the former site of a state-owned aeronautics factory, and weaves together a traditional plot – involving four fictional characters – with interviews with 90 former employees.

Jia began work on the movie in 2006 when he heard the 50 year-old factory in Chengdu was about to close and be replaced by an apartment complex. Jia – who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his previous movie, Still Life – was interested to capture this fin de siècle moment.

“The upheaval, from big state-owned factory to an apartment complex, is an excellent example of the social transformation China has been experiencing in recent decades,” Jia told the China Daily.

For millions of Chinese such factories were their entire universe. They offered jobs for life and comprehensive worker welfare. From a Westerner’s perspective they are better thought of as towns than factories, since they provided schools, hospitals, libraries, cinemas and of course, housing. The one featured in the movie employed 100,000 workers and exercised direct control over the lives of 30,000 families. It even had its own brand of ice cream.

The film is likely to provoke debate in China between those who feel nostalgia for the steadier, more predictable days of the planned economy and those who point to the rise in the standard of living that Deng’s revolution has permitted.

Perhaps the great irony of the film is that it was part-funded by the real estate company that built the apartment complex on the site of the factory. The builders of the 24 City complex gave Jia one third of the Rmb9 million ($1.3 million) he needed to fund production.

Jia’s detractors even claim the movie will make the apartment complex famous – to the benefit of the property firm selling the flats.

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