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Originally published May 7, 2009 at 3:22 PM | Page modified May 7, 2009 at 3:26 PM

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Movie review

"24 City" is an affecting blend of fiction, reality about displaced Chinese workers

"24 City," director Jia Zhang-Ke's curiously effective hybrid of documentary and scripted drama, paints an emotionally authentic portrait of Chinese factory workers displaced by economic upheaval.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"24 City," with Joan Chen, Tao Zhao, Lu Liping. Directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, from a screenplay by Zhang-Ke and Zhai Yongming. 112 minutes. Not rated; for general audiences. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

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With this moody and curiously effective follow-up to his critically acclaimed drama "Still Life," director Jia Zhang-Ke paints another vivid portrait of China devastated by commercial "progress."

This irony won't be lost on American viewers: While we struggle with the aftermath of capitalism run amok, the displaced Chinese workers in "24 City" are victims of state-run collectivism succumbing to free-market influence.

Melancholy reflections on the forces of change are provided by nine former workers from 420, a once-booming munitions factory in Chengdu, a sprawling city in southwest China. Now a hollow, dilapidated shell of its former self, 420 had once been the nexus of a thriving, hermetically sealed community, symbolic of China's "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Beginning in late 2007, the film chronicles the factory's demolition to make way for 24 City, a complex of luxury shops and apartments.

If you miss the opening credits, you might also miss Zhang-Ke's directorial coup: Five of these moving testimonies come from 420 actual workers, while the remaining four were scripted (based on compiled interviews) for well-known Chinese actors, including Joan Chen, and Zhang-Ke's frequent muse, Tao Zhao.

Drawing attention to this subtle fiction is the nickname of Chen's character, Little Flower, taken from the role she played in the 1980 film "Little Flower." This reveals "24 City" as a fiction-reality hybrid, heavily stylized (Jean-Luc Godard is an obvious influence) yet factually valid as an emotionally authentic study of economic upheaval and its unavoidable aftermath.

The fact that Chengdu was further devastated by an earthquake in 2008 lends "24 City" a haunting edge of tragedy, with (just maybe) a glint of hope for whatever rises from the rubble.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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