Chinese film-maker focuses on how politics affects people
Wednesday, 21 May 2008

AFP, CANNES - China's lone contender for the top Cannes prize, Jia Zhangke, probes the aftershock of the country's socialist policies on individual people in "24 City", shot in quake-hit Sichuan.

Currently one of the top three favourites for Cannes' coveted Palme d'Or for best film, the part-fiction, part-documentary movie spans the lives of three generations of workers employed at a large aeronautics plant at Chengdu, in Sichuan province.

"I'm not judging socialism or communism, the events speak for themselves," Jia told AFP in an interview. "What I'm interested in is the influence of this period on individual people."

Chronicling the fortunes of the now defunct but once glorious Factory 420, about to be replaced by a flashy new high-rise luxury apartment complex, Zhangke recounts the fast pace of change in China, through images and interviews, some real, some acted.

Through the years of the planned economy to the Cultural Revolution to the lay-offs of the 1990s as China heads towards a market economy, the characters recount their family and life stories. In the backdrop, key events such as the Korean and Vietnam wars also impact life on the factory floor.

"At first I was planning on shooting a documentary," he said. "But I ended up with so much rich and intense material that it was impossible to present in documentary form, so I decided to use some actors to condense the material."

"The film," he added, "allowed me to bridge the present and past. I think that's the only way you can face what you experienced under collectivism."

"24 City", said film industry magazine Screen, "may well be regarded in the future as a source of information on the world's fastest-rising superpower."

In it, present-day and retired workers flesh out Chinese history, recounting the years when staff accepted state hardships as a reason to work hard and remain poor, to put work before pleasure, and to never miss a day's work.

The sense of economy meant even old tools were not thrown away. The sense of crisis at times of military tension or during the Cultural Revolution forced people to move, leaving family behind, or in the case of one woman, abandon her child.

"People should not lack freedom because of an ideal," the 38-year-old film-maker said.

"In Chinese culture we tend not to push people to think about themselves, or their conscience, or the past. But I think this is the way we can learn about ourselves and avoid repeating the errors of the past."

"China in the last century has seen so much upheaval," he said, "People want more democracy, more freedom. It is coming too slowly, but change will come."

An event such as the upcoming Olympic Games, he said, ushered in more freedom for the Chinese.

Jia, who halted a press conference to call for a minute of silence for the victims of the quake, said he hoped his film also would show the world the reality of devastated Sichuan.

The Cannes Palme d'Or will be awarded at the close of the festival May 25. So far, 11 of the 22 films vying for the prize have been screened

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