In March 2010, MoMA dedicated a retrospective to Jia Zhangke, l’enfant terrible of contemporary Chinese cinema. (1) Considering his relatively young age (40) and the relatively short span of his filmmaking career (15 years), it was a remarkable honour. It was also timely. The event seemed to echo a spirit emanating from Jia’s filmmaking—the urgency to come to grips with something new and exciting, something that evolves so fast that one has to look back every now and then, and with attention. In the eyes of the MoMA curator, Jia’s cinema derives its power from the interplay of seemingly contradictory impulses:

Aiming to restore the concrete memory of place and to evoke individual history in a rapidly modernizing society, the filmmaker recovers the immediate past in order to imagine the future. His films reflect reality truthfully, while simultaneously using fantasy and a distinct aesthetic to pose existential questions about life and status in a society in flux. Through rigorous specificity, his art attains universal scope and appeal. (2)

The artistry with which Jia weaves these very different elements together is perhaps also what keeps his film original and innovative enough to avoid congealing into the predictable and imitable. Lesser filmmakers emulate Jia-ist realism—long takes, gritty pictures, elliptical narratives, and subjects about social marginality, etc.—but only so far as to get the surface effects right. (3) Their art lacks the intellectual weight and psychological subtlety of Jia’s, and in particular, the poetic imaginativeness which turns his realism of the quotidian, the coarse, and the ephemeral into something endearing and enduring. It is a lyricism that comes from the illumination of time and memory. Indeed, memory, something that Jia himself has encouraged us to associate his films with, seems to have become his preoccupation lately, as can be seen in his most recent documentary Hai shang chuanqi (I Wish I knew, 2010), the 2008 quasi-documentary Er shi si cheng ji (24 City), and a few shorts such as Women de shinian (Our Ten Years, 2007). But while these recent films reflect a heightened anxiousness to recover and represent memory, the whole corpus of Jia’s work can be viewed in light of his idea that cinema has a “function as memory” and should “partake in historical experience.” (4)

At first blush it might sound odd to claim that memory plays such an important role in a director’s work that has been known for its exceptional documentary qualities and are so profoundly rooted in “the present” –actual occurrences of everyday life and ongoing social, cultural and economic changes. Jia never uses flashback, voice-over, or other technical cues to contrast different times and create a subjective consciousness of memory and history. All of his works are squarely set in a single unified time frame. Yet despite their strong “contemporary” flavour, his films teem in period-authentic details and traffic in their effects to evoke a past time. Details—ranging from pop songs, fashions, everyday bric-à-brac, to the less tangible ones such as voices, gestures, demeanours and manners—“feel like time capsules of the here and now.” (5) Moreover, one detects a consciousness of time and memory that knocks the contemporaneity of his film off kilter, increasingly so in his latest works. In Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006), a film about the demolition and flooding of an ancient river town for the Three Gorges Dam project, Jia’s mixture of documentary realism and computerized surrealism suspends the present, turning it into a site of different layers of time—embodied by the archaeological ruins, the more recent socialist industrial wreckage, the mundane everyday life, and the futuristic-looking objects and figures of phantasm. In 24 City, Jia’s protracted long take further lengthens as if to counter the impact of the accelerated passing of time; poetry and photographic stills are used profusely to induce a sense of duration. As a result, despite its strong documentary quality, 24 City has the feel of a past event—objects and people appear as if they were remembered, not perceived. A die-hard realist, Jia Zhangke is also a dreamer trying to use memory to battle the world in transience: he must act as if his camera could outstrip the fleeing present by gazing at it hard and long enough and by registering its minute-by-minute change, as if reality were always on the cusp of disappearance. (6)

The consciousness of memory and its staying force also deeply affects the way Jia Zhangke conceives his characters. While he shows strong moral sympathy for the underprivileged and the disenfranchised, the director refuses to dramatize and allegorize them as hapless victims of political and social destinies. His characters are ordinary folks who try to grow with the changing world but are unable to keep up with it. Jia seizes upon their “tardiness” to prick the official image of China’s “great-leap-forward” progress transmitted through government-controlled media. To varying degrees, all of Jia’s films reveal a “time lag” between the fast and furious economic transformations and the slower-moving changes in people’s behaviour and mentality. Jia’s humble characters are the unlikely romantics who would not let go of the past: Xiao Wu the pickpocket foolishly and sentimentally clings to expired relationships (Xiao Wu, 1998); Han Sanming the tongue-tied and tough farmer-turned-miner travels all the way from his northern hometown to the Three Gorges area to recover his long lost family with only a photo and an invalid address in hand (Still Life); even the thuggish Xiao Ma Ge is hopelessly nostalgic, as he invites his friend and us to listen to his cell phone ring-tone set to the theme song of the 1980s’ Cantonese pop TV series “Shanghai Bund” (Still Life). Through the depiction of these “losers,” where time seems to slow down and tarry, Jia reveals the individual as a historical being—he/she is the crossroads where past and present meet. Whereas the soul is still tied to the receding past, the individual’s person is irresistibly, sometimes violently, swept along and bent forward by the charge of reality and the blast from the future.

One may take a step further to claim that memory is a trope that befits Jia’s realism—that the complexity of Chinese reality always bursts through the present, so much so that it can not but be grasped in a sense of intertwined temporalities. Memory, showing time in distended form, is best to convey the texture, rhythm, and psyche of everyday life—the reality of ordinary people which is at the core of Jia’s realism. As one sees in almost all of his films, the story unfolds not in a linear and logical development of events but in elliptical yet concentrated moments, not in well-structured plots but in lyrical depiction of details, not in spectacular acts of heroism but in awkward everyday crises and dilemmas.

Existing scholarship on Jia Zhangke discuss his films in two main contexts: Chinese independent filmmaking and global cinema market. (7) Jia’s films are either swept into the group of Chinese underground/independent cinema believed to offer no aesthetic satisfaction, or regarded with suspicion for appealing to international art-cinema aesthetic. In this article, I take on Jia’s cinematic “quest for memory” to advance a reading of his film aesthetic in the context of memory writing and filmmaking that reached its nostalgic apogee in the 1990s and since then continues to exist as an important mode of representing the past in contemporary Chinese literature and cinema. To search for memory through cinema is neither a new phenomenon nor a lone mission. Jia’s vision of film as memory inevitably links, yet also sets him apart, from the Fifth Generation filmmakers, who in varying degrees, also pursue the connection between memory and history in their own films. In the meanwhile, Jia’s work is also part of a new wave of Chinese cinema which seeks to recover and reflect on the often painful memories of China’s recent past. (8) Yet Jia has distinguished himself by making at least two remarkable innovations: first, his keen interest in the social structure and significance of memory drives him to evoke and articulate historical consciousness through a meticulous and accurate delineation of everyday experience and collective remembrance. And if ordinary lives and collective memory are common subjects in post-socialist literature and cinema, few artists are able to formulate an aesthetic equivalent for such memory the way Jia does. Second, Jia has developed a lyrical realist film language that not only removes pathos and nostalgia but also takes off the expediency and topicality that afflict works of social realism. Jia’s best works are fine amalgamations of objective camera and subjective lyricism, documentary and fiction.

This aesthetic also makes Jia a modernist in his own league. It is true that the impulse to search for social and historical significance of ordinary people’s experience has been part and parcel of Chinese literary modernity since the beginning of the 20th century. Much like the early modernist who were afflicted with the angst of “homesickness” as they left the rural hometown for the modern metropolis, Jia also traveled the diverging paths of town and country and found his own artistic vocation in the imaginary homecoming. (9) He grew up in Fenyang, a poor third-tier Chinese city in Shanxi Province, with familial ties to the rural. Although having lived and worked in Beijing for many years, Jia still regards Shanxi as his “true China”—“My focus, my concern, my emotional world is there.” (10) In fact, he started his filmmaking career in large part owing to his “discovery” of the hometown and of its disintegration in post-socialist China. (11) But Jia’s work is more than a cogent depiction of specific locales and times. His critique of Chinese urbanization and modernization is filtered through a poetic, often elegiac, view of the ephemeral present. If in a social critic’s eyes, for example, “leaving” home/land is inevitably associated with economic disparity and forced migration, for a poet, leaving is also escaping from the present and seeking freedom—it is the permanent state of modern existence. The prevalence of transportation vehicles in Jia’s films—train, bus, car, plane, boat, motorbikes, flat-bed truck, monorail, etc.—is the reality of a society in great flux as well as a metaphor for the inner restlessness of its citizens set adrift from home/land and trying to catch up with the change. A subdued melancholy and loss often suffuse the scenes where Jia’s characters ride these vehicles to “elsewhere.” This impulse to interweave “momentous” social changes and “momentary” subjective experience is what extends the significance of Jia’s film from the social to the universal. What is also worth noting is that Jia shuns an elitist stance: he does not see his authorial subject as possessing a privileged position in experiencing modernity in a profound way. This is what most clearly differentiates him from Chinese modernists of earlier times. Yet, taking upon himself the mission of using film as a means of social commemoration and communication, can Jia escape the impasse between (elitist) art form and (populist) social vision, a familiar contradiction that weighs heavily on the works of his modernist predecessors? Will he, in his cinematic search for memory, find his ideal audience?

In the following, I first describe how Jia’s keen interest in the collective framework of personal memory and his realist approach render his films a departure from socialist nostalgia of the 1990s. I observe that the aesthetic tension between documentary and fiction in his cinema keeps nostalgia at bay and at the same time expands the films’ significance from the social to the universal. To illustrate this point, I choose Zhantai (Platform, 2000) and 24 City, two films that happen to bookend that part of Jia’s filmmaking in which memory is consciously applied as an aesthetic trope and a subject. I conclude the paper with a discussion on the contradiction between Jia’s quest for memory and his search for an audience.


Memory often becomes a visible issue at historical junctures. If one needs to identify a time when the connections between memory and film became self-conscious in China, it arguably began with the rise of the Fifth-generation cinema, which from early on, actively engaged in adapting literary works that resort to memory for materials and new narrative modes. (12) Yet, at the beginning, most directors only appropriated the stories for their film. (13) Few showed serious interest in exploring the aesthetic potential and subversive meanings of memory in relation to history, with perhaps the only exception of Tian Zhuangzhuang. (14) When Chinese cinema transitioned into market production and entertainment mode in the 1990s, memory became part of the discourse of market-driven and market-enhanced nostalgia, or what cultural critic Dai Jinhua calls the “imagined nostalgia.” (15) In fact, the literary/cinematic rewriting of the socialist past as “a story of romance, a personalized history” is one of the many lapses in collective memories in the 1990s. (16) Turning to the memory of an “innocent,” idealistic, passionate, and youthful past, defining it in strictly personal terms and making it palatable, are safe aesthetic choices and sound commercial strategy. In the meanwhile, nostalgia is not necessarily a product of pragmatism and opportunism. On the contrary, filmmakers and writers can be earnest and sincere in their revisionist thinking and imagination. They seek to understand and rediscover a revolutionary spirit and passion which in the past energized and inspired millions of Chinese but have lost ground and meaning in the present. (17) To recoup this spirit in a post-socialist China, they extracted it from old ideology and politics, rerouted and re-embed it into a more positive and universal experience and discourse. (18) As it turns out, a heavy narrative and thematic investment in sexuality and melancholy, particularly from the perspective of the youth, became a prominent feature of 1990s’ literary and film works of socialist nostalgia. Yet as nostalgia moved in to fill the spiritual and cultural void left by the simultaneous retreating of socialist idealism and the official ban on historical investigation and public debate on the Cultural Revolution, it has also contributed to the bracketing of the unpleasant and inconvenient truth about today’s China—its old (socialist) guilt and crime and its new (capitalist) ineptitude in distributing social welfare and economic benefits to the working class and peasants.

If Jia’s cinema can be read as a resistance against 1990s’ nostalgia, it is not against its personal core. The director is well aware of the importance of evoking personal memory to redress the neglect of everyman’s experience in cinematic representations:

“Filmmaking is a way of remembering. Yet our film screen is almost all filled up with official discourse. People often ignore ordinary life. They belittle everyday experience. They like to play with legends of history…But I want to speak about the feelings buried deep in time, those personal experiences teeming in unnamable and undirected impulses.” (19)

What Jia’s film is implicitly set against is the very narrow perspective of nostalgia, of its privatizing, escapist tendency, which ironically is a reaction to the failure of socialism and its collectivist ideology. Despite his retrospective attention to the socialist past, Jia is able to hold nostalgia at bay. How does he do it?

First, by foregrounding and probing the predicaments of the “proletariat” class, mainly laid-off factory workers, urban unemployed, and peasant workers, by depicting traces of socialist legacy in contemporary life, Jia rejects the pastness in the nostalgic mode. For these people’s “rootless” state, their struggle amidst China’s miraculous “rise,” indicate the relevance of the past to the present, in the sense that the failed promise of socialism to bring social and economic equality to all members of society is now a new and urgent issue that capitalism does not lessen but only exacerbates.

Xiao WuSecond, Jia tries to evoke a collective ethos in his film. Even in a character-study film Xiao Wu, Jia’s astute observation of the hapless protagonist is as much focused on social imprints as on biographical features. Jia also likes to depict his characters in interpersonal relationships, parallel stories, and group portraits. In fact, many of the main characters in Jia’s film have that mixed look: an individual and a nobody in the crowd. The camera not only constantly throws them into a throng or a crowded public place, it also distances itself from the scene. There is an almost fetishistic attention to their “common-ness” in such places. As a result, the line between the individual and anonymous others often becomes blurred. Looking as if they were randomly plucked from the large populace, these people stand as witnesses and participants of some of the most significant events of recent Chinese history—the cultural thaw in the 1980s (Platform), the flooding of the Three Gorges (Still Life), the privatization of state-owned industry followed by massive lay-offs (24 City), etc.

This attraction to the crowd, especially to the vast “floating population” who traverses China’s vast landscape, to the vital force and massive spirit that emanate from them, is matched with an open, multi-stranded narrative and a polysemic perspective that holds off nostalgic self-consciousness. Over the years Jia’s cinematic canvas increases in dimensions as it admits more characters and more narrative lines into one film. His heavily documentary-inflected realism, while placing the country’s landscape at the center—an enormously fascinating sight and subject in itself, casts individual figures in group portraits and creates mosaic effects: vignettes of multiple characters in different situations forming as well as suggesting the infinitely complex and heterogeneous social collective. The conventional dramaturgy that emphasizes the unity of space and individual action, Jia reasons, can no longer reflect the complex reality one lives in China today. (20) In Jia’s films, the collective is not a context or an allegory but the texture and substance of memory. His emphasis on collective life and group-portrait effects offsets the self-consciousness of the nostalgic mode.

Third, Jia keeps nostalgia at bay by giving an important place to material artifacts and social practices, the kind of memory that can be documented and directly shown. In Still Life and 24 City, for example, the camera plucks from public memory details of quotidian life, familiar markings of the socialist legacy that many mainland Chinese of a certain age would immediately recognize: work-unit ID card; rationing coupons of the lean yesteryears; tea leaves left in a locker of a bankrupt factory that reminds one of the days whiled away in the more relaxed but inefficient industrial system; a row of model work-unit award certificates hung on the wall about to be knocked down, etc.

24 CityLast but not least, Jia also often attempts to repress personal expressiveness by channelling the attention to the plastic image itself and by distilling the detail into something emotionally neutral. Such an aesthetic is one that demands a more active participation from the audience and curtails authorial narcissism. In an interview with Jia Zhangke, Dudley Andrew asked the director to explain the meaning of the green tinge to the image in 24 City. (21) The hue, it turns out, was deliberately mixed into the colour palette of the film during postproduction. Why? Jia offered an intriguing answer. When he was a small child growing up in northern China in the late 1970s and 80s, he saw the green colour everyday and everywhere, often painted one metre high on walls of both private homes and public places—hospitals, offices, classrooms, and state-run factories. For Jia, green is apparently a very personal memory; yet instead of using the colour to express an individual sentiment, he “exhibits” it rather matter-of-factly by integrating it into the film texture. (22) The expressive impulse is barely descernable as Jia applies the colour to costume, prop, and setting and only turns it up a shade greener. The director puts his trust in the documentary “objectivity” and its potential mnemonic “reverberations” among his ideal audience.

Indeed, while memory renders a depth and lyricism to Jia’s realism, the latter in turn forestalls nostalgia. This interaction between the mnemonic and the realistic is conditioned and made possible by the director’s artful interweaving of two cinematic impulses: documentary and fiction. On the one hand, all of Jia’s feature films have exceptional documentary qualities. (23) Quite a few of them evolve from his documentary work or become parallel projects of the latter. The shooting of Ren Xiaoyao, (Unknown Pleasures, 2002) went simultaneously with the short film Gonggong changsuo (In Public, 2001); Still Life spun out of the documentary Dong; a large part of 24 City is taken from his documentary footage. In all his films there is an urgent desire to capture the fast-evolving present, “the momentous,” the ongoing and unfolding actual events. Shooting documentaries, shorts, and using DV are more than just technical choices for Jia; they are necessary means to keep up with the pace and speed of actuality. On the other hand, Jia is never content with only recording the jumble of reality. The gravitation towards fiction leads his camera to seize on the “momentary”—the cinematic moments that reveals the private, often silent and mysterious, side of the individual and his/her relationship with others. Tentative and meandering, his camera noticeably slows down as this happens. Thus, although it remains “objective” and “observational,” Jia’s camera allows us a glimpse, however evanescently and ambiguously, into life as it is and “the life within” —hidden feelings and histories that are profound but invisible or unspeakable. Platform and 24 City are two examples that can explain the working of the aesthetic tension between these two tendencies.


Spanning ten years of the reform-and-opening era between 1979 and 1989, Platform depicts a group of young people who work for a local song-and-dance troupe in Fenyang, a small city in the northern province of Shanxi. It is a transitional time. While part of their world is still mired in the past—economic hardship, social stagnancy, and patriarchal inhibitions, these young people start to feel the “thaw” and the cultural new waves surging from coastal cities. However, real changes come along slowly and difficultly. As the lyrics of the pop song that lends its title to the film suggests, it is a time when hope alternates with despair, anticipation twins with disillusionment, and one waits for a train that never comes.

In many ways, Platform’s perspective is decidedly personal and autobiographical. Jia’s characters, who look neither striking nor talented or even well-trained as professional singers and dancers, are mostly inspired by the director’s friends in his hometown. Jia regards his own escape from the small-town life as a mere “incident”—he believes that he could well have been one of those left behind who feel trapped. (24) The autobiographical dimension can also be felt in Jia’s love for his characters. Underneath the film’s somber tone and grayish colour palette is the genuine warmth of camaraderie and friendship. But the seemingly random details Jia chooses to depict these young people’s lives—permed hair, bell-bottom jeans, French novels, American TV-series, soft rock and pop songs from Taiwan and Hong Kong—bespeak the film’s more ambitious vision. For they are part of the shared memory of the entire generation coming to age in the 1970s and 1980s as China opened itself to the influx of previously banned fashion, art, and literature. Jia also steers the plot of love stories to a broad social terrain by constructing two narrative routes that his characters must traverse—that between their outlying hometown and the even more remote mountainous countryside, and between the mundane and boring domestic life at home and the tough yet not entirely unpleasant communal life as itinerant performers. As this broad spatial expanse forms the film’s woof, it interweaves with its warp—the decade-long temporal line, along which the socialist-styled culture team metamorphoses into a privately-owned Rock n’Breakdance band.

PlatformIn tracking the troupe’s many trips to the countryside, Jia’s documentary impulse vies with his fictional drive. On the one hand, his gaze at the desolate natural landscape and the same desolate public space in towns and villages is unflinching. His camera is also jarringly candid, almost brutal, showing no qualms in revealing the main characters’ amateurishness as performers and awkwardness as lovers. Nor does the camera fuss over the poverty, squalor, boredom, and meanness that the characters are subject to on a daily basis as they roam from one impoverished village to another. On the other hand, as Jia shifts his gaze towards individual characters, one can see how the fictional impulse takes over. In one scene, we see the lovelorn protagonist Cui Mingliang standing pensively over a winding stream. Suddenly he takes something out of his pocket, throws it to the ground, and ignites a bonfire, its intense flame burning bright against the dusk-befallen mountain that dominates the picture. The long shot, accompanied by an extremely quiet sound track composed only of ambient sound and a few short plaintive music notes, evokes a repressed but lingering melancholy—that of a person who looks back at the past with mixed feelings. A very personal moment is thus snatched up by memory and converted into a stately cinematic space that can be gazed upon from afar. Such is a fiction writer’s vision. The imagery comes from the “temporal experience” of life, from an ability to take hold of experience and turn it round. (25) Yet throughout the scene, Jia’s camera sustains the exteriority and distance of the documentary approach.

PlatformThe aesthetic tension between documentary and fiction can also be seen in the film’s ending. In the very last scene, the camera swoops from the open view of the outside world back to the localized and intimate space of domestic life­–the wife Yin Ruijuan is cooing the baby, a water kettle is whistling on the stove, and the husband Cui Mingliang (the previously frustrated suitor) is slouching in a sofa chair fast asleep. The impossibly placid and mundane image arrests time and sets it in perpetual oscillation between ennui and bliss. One takes away from the scene an ambiguous but not so uncommon message: reconciliation and acceptance of life as it is. What makes it remarkable, however, is Jia’s reliance on the plastic surface, images seemingly randomly chosen and randomly recorded, to suggest rather than explain the meaning. One derives a strange sense of tranquility and endurance from the most immediate and banal. Moreover, through this lyrical de-dramatization of the love story and distillation of emotions, Jia has latched onto something larger: not only the post-socialist life of Chinese youth in general, who in their myriad, small, and often futile ways butted against a shaken yet still solid system, but also the universal state of all life—life that is at once promising and confining, important and trivial. The film’s region-particular and period-accurate realism, which at first sight seem to be drawn from random personal memories, in fact come from a mighty comprehension of the larger socio-cultural mechanism; it also comes from the poet/filmmaker’s deep understanding of life as it is.

Jia’s tendency to interweave social documentary with individual fiction can perhaps also partly explain that perplexing ascetic or “asexual” feel of Jia’s film. (26) At the centre of Platform are two romantic relationships going on in parallel and in contrast to each other that end up in reversals: passionate Zhong Pin and Zhang Jun fail to consummate their love with marriage while the more reticent and reserved couple Yin Ruijuan and Cui Mingliang, toughening out of the vicissitudes of a long, difficult courtship, settle into the normalcy of domestic life. The film, however, looks nothing like your familiar type of love story. Its stylistic and emotional austerity sets a stark contrast to the highly eroticized and melodramatic films of the Fifth Generation. Its gravitation towards the expression of repressed private feelings in public spaces also differs from the psychosexual approach of many Hollywood and European films. The latter often tap memory to uncover deeper subjectivity or secrets of history and tend to depict uncommon individual experiences and extraordinary characters through the lens of sexual politics. (27) Jia’s aesthetic asceticism may have something to do with his personal inhibitions and taste. But apparently the form befits Jia’s socio-aesthetic interest and his view of life in the post-Mao era, a time when free love, romance, and sex, just like private ownership and the free market, had not yet broken out of their taboo status. The film’s formal primness matches and expresses the socialist puritanism and priggishness embodied by the scolding parents and the watchful eyes of police, and internalized by the young people themselves.


While socialism is depicted as a continuing albeit weakened institution and ethos that still exerts considerable impact on individual life in Platform, it appears in 24 City mainly as a “discourse,” a past-tense oral history. 24 City is a collection of reminiscences about the past and the present in an oversized state-run factory, one of the many now defunct socialist microcosms that used to provide cradle-to-coffin welfare for their workers and employees. But what makes 24 City a truly interesting case to study has as much to do with the political significance of the subject as with the way Jia explores the limits of memory and its representations. The tension between documentary and fiction is not only shown in Jia’s deliberate mixing of real remembrance and performed story-telling but also felt at a deeper level, when the direct-cinema mode interviews are disrupted by narrative ellipsis, poetry, stylized visual images, and silence, the disjunctions at which the film exploits the limitation of representation and imperceptibly shifts its weight and register from the documentary to the fictional, from the social to the psychological.

In 2007, Jia came across a piece of news that was at the time no longer newsworthy in China: Cheng Fa Group Co., a big aviation engine manufacturer (aka “Factory 420”), was going to sell its factory lot to a real-estate developer to build luxury high rises (named “24 City”) and relocate to the suburb. (28) Jia’s immediate reaction to the news was: what about the memory of those workers? (29) He sensed an enormous emotional and psychological loss behind the news. As with Still Life, Jia started this project as a documentary. The idea to add fiction only came later. A hundred interviews and many hours of footage later, Jia produced a rather idiosyncratic film: while its silent documenting of the last phase of the dismantling and relocation of the factory looks painterly and staged, the four “fictional” talking heads performed by professional actors appear realistic enough to be braided seamlessly with the other five authentic ones delivered by real factory workers.

Not so seamlessly for those who recognize the actors. The performed interviews became a sticky issue that haunted the reception to the film. (30) Although blending documentary elements with fiction has often been deemed an auteurist’s gesture, it becomes disturbing when the adulteration goes the other way—when fiction disrupts the documentary realism. Many felt the use of actors’ performance was contrived and downright inappropriate. They grumbled about Lü Liping’s unconvincing accent-less performance and found it silly to let Joan Chen play a parody version of herself. (31) But lying behind the complaints about the effects of acting is perhaps another cause of discontent. It is unsettling because, placed in the same diegetic film space, the constructed, synthesized, and performed reminiscences are supposedly given the same value as “real” authentic memory.

Jia may sound facile to claim that “history is always a blend of facts and imagination” when trying to defend his hybridization of fictional memory with real-life remembrances. (32) But 24 City raises the tantalizing question about the constructedness of memory not only because of the narrativity of any memory representation but also because of the collective framework of memory. If the past is inevitably distorted in “recollection” because “we wish to introduce greater coherence,” if individual memory is interdependent with social and collective memory, and if a film aims at evoking a common historical consciousness despite the actual multiplicity and diversity of experience, then the synthetic or composite memory may generate the same effects as “real” memory. (33) It is the collective-social foundation and function of memory that Jia underscores in his film that finally renders performed storytelling as meaningful as real reminiscences. In fact, much of the affective power of Jia’s film derives from his implicit pact with his ideal domestic audience, his appeal to their common knowledge and experience of the past. In making 24 City, Jia Zhangke deliberately eliminated or pared down “the very intense dramatic moments” of the source stories he gathered from his many interview with workers and chose only those more common or generic ones, the ones that he presumes the audience would most easily understand, identify with, and relate to. (34) Precisely because the experiences shown are “not very idiosyncratic or unique,” he said, “the film can offer Chinese audiences a vaster imaginary space, into which they can project their own experience and stories.” (35)

However, the critical fixation on the fiction/documentary mix may not yield a fruitful reading if we do not take into account other important features of the film’s form. For although 24 City is composed of multiple stories, its general structure and effect is not that of narrative cinema but that of lyrical prose. The stories we hear from the interviewees are apparently excerpts of longer reminiscences. Delivered in a rather random, impressionistic and elliptical manner, they do not bear any narrative relation to each other or form a coherent larger narrative. Jia’s observational approach leaves many questions unanswered. But an emotional thread does hold the stories together: the workers’ ambivalent feelings towards the factory and its relocation. This thread is also what binds the two panels of the film, documentary and fiction, together.

24 City is impregnated with the tension between its documentary sincerity and fictional curiosity also at a deeper level. On the surface, the film is given to recording the interviewees’ immediate expressions of feelings: tears brimming in eyes, choke-ups, sniffling, and half-finished sentences. Static camera, long-takes, and spare and simple mise-en-scène allow us to watch with full attention emotions slowly unfolding on human faces. Yet, Jia is not satisfied with what direct cinema can reveal. He also wants to convey things that are not “speakable” or even “representable.” To achieve the goal, he turns to inter-titled poetry, images of tableaux-vivant effects, non-diegetic music, and most intriguingly, silence. Once, the camera follows Joan Chen’s “Little Flower” character as she comes out of the factory auditorium, alone. Having just finished her rehearsal, she is still in her full opera costume and headgear. The camera stares at her back as she turns away and walks slowly towards the apartment buildings. Thanks to the silent long-take and the deep-focus shot, one notices the visual dissonance between the woman’s bright blue dress and the grayish dilapidated buildings. The irony between the tragic but interesting theatrical role she plays on stage and the disappointing life she lives by herself off stage is therefore in full view. Silence also sharpens the contrast between the conviviality she has enjoyed with her friends in the rehearsal a moment ago and the loneliness that envelops her right now. Apparently the “Little Flower” character alludes to women in classic tales whose faded beauty serves as figural emblems of dynastic fall. The mainland Chinese release and promotion of the film actually exploits the folksy version of this idea. (36) Yet the allegorical interpretation is cancelled out not only by the film’s narrative polyvalence but also by the generous attention Jia gives to her as an individual person whose inner life and unseen history is shrouded in silence, defying abstraction.

Such “fictional” moments of silence reveals Jia’s interest in exploring the life within individual characters. But it can also become a gesturing towards the politically meaningful, albeit in a rather subtle way. Jia lets his camera roll on as silence dawns upon the person at the end of his/her interview. Silence sometimes permeates the whole scene. The idea of letting silence speak the ineffable comes from Jia’s real-life interviews, during which he intuits that “more extraordinary stories of memory must have submerged into the silence, into the moments when these people finished telling their stories” and probably “those silences are the most important.” (37) What are these most important things hidden in the hollowed moments of silence? Through 24 City, Jia touches on a spot in the collective psyche that sets off spasms of painful memory, and in real life, repressed resentment and flares of violence. The massive privatization of state-owned enterprises that started in the 1990s was the cause of numerous labour disputes in China. Seldom did such disputes escalate into violence. In most cases, anger, resentment, and despair would sink deep into silence and disperse into public oblivion. 24 City does not explicitly divulge any resentment among the workers. Only a brief glimpse into the impoverished apartment occupied by one of the characters betrays the muffled sentiment—there, “time seems to have stopped in the late 1970s or 80s.” (38) The extensive interviews Jia collected and later published show how fully he understood the grievances and disaffections among these factory workers. The film’s reticence on this issue speaks to Jia’s aesthetic restraint as much as to his delicate position as the “above-ground” independent film director. (39)

But even if it is not a film to inspire political activism, 24 City is politically meaningful. It tries to reestablish an increasingly attenuated link and relevance between China’s recent past and its present by alluding to the broken promise and broken dream of socialism. Puncturing the cinema’s surface with little holes of silence here and there, Jia drills into the depth of the repressed memory of socialist idealism. He urges the audience’s vigilant and imaginative engagement with the obvious blanks he leaves in the film. Silence prompts them to imagine what else transpires in the workers’ minds besides loss and nostalgia; it invites them to read into the complex and conflicted minds of these people. Moreover, “hearing” the silence, the audience might turn to their own silent world of memory and feel their own inability to recall and speak.


The prominence of Jia Zhangke’s films and the emergence of Chinese independent filmmaking to which his cinema belongs to have a lot to do with the so-called Rise of China, its “miraculous” economic transformation. (40) It is not just that the institutional change of the film industry in the 1990s, propelled by the deepening marketization, proves to be liberating to Chinese independent filmmakers—“the withering of the state-owned studios stimulated film production by different groups of independents or semi-independents outside of, or partially overlapping with, the ‘system’.” (41) The fact is, their films take on great significance because they deal with the complex and often unpleasant reality behind the China miracle. But if such seismic changes as massive demolition and dislocation can easily be turned into spectacular film images, filmmakers have an obligation and often a more challenging task to depict the human aspects of these changes—the life and history beneath the visible phenomenon. Memory is a well-chosen means of investigation and representation.

In the meanwhile, the cinematic quest for memory Jia and his fellow Six-Generation/independent filmmakers embark on is also a “natural” choice considering the forgetful nature of collective memory and the official ban on many historical subjects. Chinese society now seems to be “wholly preoccupied with the here and now” and lives “entirely for the future.” (42) Never has the past been swept into oblivion and the present turned into the obsolete with such swiftness in the country. The crisis of memory, which also becomes the crisis of reality, is apparently what motivates the work of many filmmakers. (43) Jia does not choose to retreat to the private and the personal, however, nor does he treat memory as a result of a disappeared life that no longer has anything to do with the present. His interest in memory goes beyond that of an archaeologist’s to recover relics from abandoned sites. While using film to mourn the irrevocable loss of memory, Jia sees his cinematic remembering as a meaningful intervention in the present and an expression of hope for the future—to remind people of the neglected social groups, the forgotten memory, and the dream of a more egalitarian nature.

There is, however, a contradiction between Jia’s film art and his social vision, between his aesthetic quest for memory and his search for an audience. Critics and scholars have pointed out that Jia and other independent filmmakers’ films have seen their impact limited to international film festivals, academic circles, cine-clubs, (pirated) DVDs etc., and in general, have enjoyed more welcoming reception overseas than domestically. (44) They also list the reasons why such is the case: censorship in China, limited distribution and exhibition venues within the country, international film festival culture, western media’s tendency to play up the subversive message in Chinese films, etc. (45) But art film and indie film are never audience-friendly, neither are they meant to be.

Jia and his fellow independent filmmakers do not see it that way. They regard their filmmaking as fulfilling a social function and do not consider art and audience as opposite goals. Many of them desire a bigger domestic audience, not so much for commercial reasons as for the hope of making a connection with their fellow citizens. (46) In an article enumerating the contributions of the Sixth Generation filmmakers to Chinese cinema and Chinese society, Jia Zhangke dismisses the criticism of their films’ lack of popular appeal. He uses the word “freedom” to affirm the value of the Sixth-Generation cinema in both artistic and social terms—their films are the voices of self-expressions that both pushed the freedom of art and other social freedoms in Chinese society. (47) As a collective group, Jia thunders, the Six-Generation have produced works that “complemented and resonated with one another, sketching out the revolution that took place in China’s film art…” (48) Intriguingly, despite his own experience of “the tyranny of the market,” Jia declares his willingness to embrace the market. For “a market economy is part of the dream of freedom.” (49) He blames the commercial failure of the Six-Generation films on the media’s eagerness to prematurely sentence them to death. But Jia does not seem to realize that even with a more friendly and supportive media, films made by him and his fellow independent filmmakers might still not be able to be embraced by a wide audience.

In Jia’s case, his refined aesthetic has only deepened the dilemma between art and audience. True, as Zhang Zhen has astutely observed, “Jia’s firsthand experience…as a migrant urban subject and his desire to reclaim cinema as a communicative tool for the ordinary Chinese citizen caught up in the tides of urbanization and socio-economic transformation have compelled him to place the ‘migrant-artisan’ at the center stage of his cinema.” (50) Yet the director’s self-identification as an outsider of Chinese elite class and as a “migrant-worker director” (minggong daoyan) does not lesson his artistic “elitism.” His choice of a tough, reflective, anti-drama film language and his preference for mediated and deferred emotional involvement mean that his cinema is challenging. If Jia conceives his filmmaking as a way of conveying and communicating social significance of personal memory and collective experience, his elliptical and subtle film language is sometimes short of breaking off communication with the audience. The situation can be made worse when he overly plays on the “insider’s” knowledge and response. This is true in 24 City as well as in I Wish I Knew. Even if an “outsider”—be he/she a foreigner or a younger Chinese viewer—may understand the intention, the emotional resonance that Jia solicits may prove to be elusive. In addition, Jia’s frequent use of long shot and long take engenders lyricism; but it can also alienate many who might be put off by its length and lack of action. In all, Jia’s commitment to the non-obtrusive observational approach, his favouring of lyrical subtlety and ellipsis, and his demand for audiences’ participation, are indeed what make his films fascinating to many and frustrating to perhaps many more. One implication of this is that Jia’s social agenda for his film projects may be a mission impossible to accomplish.

Unless, the filmmaker himself changes. And inevitably, sooner or later, they all will change. Towards those who are pessimistic about the future of Chinese independent filmmakers, Jia is defiant, “I do not believe that you can predict our future.” (51) One cannot help wondering, however, echoing André Bazin’s concern over the future of Italian neorealism decades ago, what would happen to Jia and his fellow filmmakers “when the novelty and above all the flavour of their technical crudity have exhausted their surprise effect,” and “when by force of circumstances it must revert to traditional subjects: crime stories, psychological dramas, social customs?” (52) One film after another, Jia has doggedly defied our fear of him running out of artistic innovations. His mastery of cinematic technique has also matured well beyond an incidental and intuitive freshness and crudeness. But a bigger challenge may well be on its way as he attempts to reach out to the (domestic) mass audience. Will this desire for a popular audience, either for social or commercial motives, undo his artistic independence? Jia’s Shanghai Expo “tie-in” film I Wish I Knew has shown symptoms of a retreating spirit of independence. The very cozy relationship between Jia and the government in this collaboration invites suspicion, but perhaps would not have appeared so compromising for Jia if the film were better conceived. The fact is, while this film offers as much plastic opulence and emotional complexity as one can hope to get from a meta-narrative about memory, its overt ambition to reach towards an overarching historical vision and its overreliance on the ideal audience’s insider knowledge to pluck collective (even nationalistic) sentiments are in the end self-defeating. Meanwhile, Jia’s pledge to retain artistic independence will also be tested as he adopts a commercial model for his future projects. Zai Qingchao (literally, ‘In the Qing Dynasty’), his current film in production and his first commercial film, perhaps will give us a better idea about the future of this very talented filmmaker. Will the audience he seeks turn out to be a miracle or a mirage? For now, let’s give him the benefits of the doubt.

Acknowledgement: Wendy Larson, Kelly Malone and Dudley Andrew have read the drafts of this article at its different stages. I thank them for their insightful comments and valuable editorial suggestions.


  1. “Jia Zhangke: A Retrospective,” March 5-20, 2010. It was the first time in more than 20 years that MoMA has held such an event for a mainland Chinese filmmaker according to Atlantic Monthly.
  2. See MoMA’s web page for Jia Zhangke Retrospective: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1046.
  3. Film scholars such as Chris Berry and Shelly Kraicer see the influence of Jia Zhangke lead to a trite and predictable mode in certain Chinese Indie films. See dGenerate Films’s interview with Berry, “Cinema Talk: A Conversation with Chris Berry,” www.dGeneratefilm.com, June 29, 2009. Also see “Shelly on Film: Pushing Beyond Indie Conventions” published on the same website, October 12, 2009.
  4. See Andrew Chan’s Film Comment interview with Jia, “Moving with the Times,” Film Comment website, March/April issue. http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/ma09/uncutjia.htm.
  5. See Evan Osno, “The Long Shot,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2009: 90.
  6. Chris Berry points out that both Jia Zhangke’s feature films and documentaries by Wu Wenguang seem to dwell “on time passing in a seemingly uncontrolled manner.” See “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary,” in Urban Generation: Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, ed. by Zhang Zhen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 124.
  7. See Paul G. Pickowicz’s article “Social and Political Dynamics of Underground Filmmaking in China,” in From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China, ed. Paul G. Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefiled Publishing, 2006). Also see Jason McGrath’s chapter on Jia in his book Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2008).
  8. Memory is implicitly present in the form of perspective and detail in Wang Xiaoshuai’s Qinghong (Shanghai Dreams, 2005) and Gu Changwei’s Kongque (Peacock, 2005), two fiction films set in the post-socialist time of the 1970s and 1980s that deal with the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Documentaries such as Wang Bing’s He Fengming (A Chinese Memoir, 2007) and Hu Jie’s Wo sui si qu (Though I am Gone, 2006) and Xunzhao Lin Zhao de linghun (Looking for Lin Zhao’s Soul, 2004) more directly deal with personal memories of the Cultural Revolution.
  9. For more discussion on hometown in Jia’s cinema, see Michael Berry’s Xiao Wu ∙ Platform ∙ Unknown Pleasures: Jia Zhangke’s ‘Hometown Trilogy’ (London: BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
  10. Evan Osnos, “The Long Shot,” 90.
  11. See Michael Berry’s comparison of Jia’s rendition of hometown with Lu Xun’s writing, Jia Zhangke’s ‘Hometown Trilogy’ 16
  12. See for example, Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of Mo Yan’s Honggaoliang jiazu (Red Sorghum Saga), Yu Hua’s Huozhe (To Live), and Chen Kaige’s adaptation of Ah Cheng’s Haizi wang (King of Children).
  13. This happens with the film To Live in which Zhang Yimou erases the voice and perspective of the reminiscent narrator in the original fiction.
  14. Tian’s Lan Fengzheng (Blue Kite, 1993) is an exemplary exception with its emphasis on the private often incoherent memory of the traumatic experience of the Cultural Revolution. The film is able to counterbalance its allegorical tendency and narrative melodrama with generous, lyrical, often ambiguously meaningful details.
  15. See Dai Jinghua, “Imagined Nostalgia,” Boundary 2, 24:3, 1997.
  16. Ibid. 153.
  17. Among writers, Wang Anyi is perhaps the most prolific one on this subject. Her fictional works such as “Youshang de niandai” (The Era of Sorrow), Wutuobang shipian (Verse of Utopia), and many other nonfictional short pieces are all written in an excessively melancholy and nostalgic mode.
  18. For more on revolutionary spirit and its representation in literature and cinema, see Wendy Larson’s From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and the Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
  19. Jia Thinks, 《 贾想 1996-2008: 贾樟柯电影手记》(Jia Thinks 1996-2008: Jia Zhangke film journal) (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2009), 100. Referred to as Jia Thinks hereafter.
  20. Ibid., 231.
  21. See Dudley Andrew, “Encounter: Interview with Jia Zhangke,” trans. Jiwei Xiao, Film Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4 (2009): 80. Referred to as “Encounter” hereafter.
  22. Once paying attention, one discovers greens everywhere in Jia’s works. The Chinese poet Ouyang Jianghe points out that green is also the motif colour in Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings about memory of the 1970s’ China. See Jia Thinks, 261.
  23. As various scholars have already pointed out, Jia’s feature Zhantai (Platform, 2000) was preceded by Wu Wenguang’s DV documentary Jianghu (Jiang Hu: Life on the Road, 1999), which also happens to be about a travelling amateur troupe’s effort to find ways to appeal to the market. And some of the prominent features of independent documentary works, such as the foregrounding of ordinary people’s voices, the stylistic preference for “unscripted spontaneity,” and the choice to use digital video as the medium to convey “on-the-spot realism” or jishizhuyi, are also what characterize many of Jia’s films. See Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Post-socialism,” The Urban Generation:121-123.
  24. See the Chinese talk show host Yang Lan’s interview with Jia on her TV program Yan Lan Fangtan Lu (December 2006).
  25. The author of the paper is here inspired by Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of Mrs. Dalloway, in Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 110.
  26. See David Denby’s review on Still Life, “Moral Landscapes,” The New Yorker website, January 21, 2008.
  27. Recent films such as Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) and Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin are two cases in point.
  28. For more about the history of the factory, see “Key Words” for 24 City released by Cinema Guild. http://www.cinemaguild.com/24citypress/24pk.pdf .
  29. Jia Zhangke, 《序: 其余的都是沉默》(Preface: the rest is silence), in《中国工人访谈录》(Interviews with Chinese factory workers) (Jinan: Shandong huabao chubanshe, 2009), 3. Referred to as Interviews hereafter.
  30. I got this impression from my discussions with my Chinese colleagues after I gave a presentation on 24 City at 2009 Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature biannual meeting in Beijing. Also see Fudan University professor and film scholar Lü Xinyu’s remarks at a panel discussion on the film. She uses terms such as “fake documentary” (weizhuang de jilupian) to describe 24 City. See Jia Thinks, 258.
  31. In the film, Joan Chen’s character is nicknamed “Little Flower” because of her resemblance to Chen Chong, the actress who played the title role in the 1980 film Little Flower. Joan Chen is Chen Chong’s English name.
  32. See “Key Words” for 24 City.
  33. For more theoretical discussion on the social structure of personal memory, see Maurice Halbwachs’s On Collective Memory (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 183.
  34. See Dudley Andrew, “Encounter,” 82.
  35. Ibid.
  36. The film was promoted as a story about “three generations of factory belles” (sandai changhua) in the country.
  37. Jia Zhangke, Interviews, 6.
  38. Dudley Andrew, “Encounter,” 83.
  39. For more discussion on domestic criticism on Jia, see Osnos’s article “The Long Shot.” Jia’s use of the fund from the real estate developer Huarun and his entitling of the film with the name of the apartment complex became a controversial issue that dogged the reception of the film in China. Jia was reportedly unapologetic.
  40. “Chinese independent filmmakers” is a loose category for naming those filmmakers who work outside Chinese state studio system. But it is a slippery name and a complex notion because of the diverse and changing situations filmmakers find themselves in. They are sometimes inaccurately referred to as “underground” filmmakers and sometimes referred to as “the Sixth-Generation” vis-à-vis the Fifth-Generation. Jia Zhangke has been called all of these. This article admits to the confused state of naming. But I think perhaps in referring to himself as a Six-Generation director rather than an independent filmmaker in one of his recent articles (see note 47), Jia can get away with his ambiguous identity: he can no longer be technically considered an independent filmmaker because he now collaborates with studios; yet he can somehow still maintain an independent filmmaking style and spirit.
  41. See Zhang Zhen’s introduction to Urban Generation, 13.
  42. The society which is wholly preoccupied with the here and now and is incapable of producing historians to understand its past is the model French historian Pierre Nora regards as a contrast with French society, which he describes as having “changed so radically that it has lost its memory and become obsessed with understanding itself historically.” See Pierre Nora’s “General Introduction: Between Memory and History,” in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Vol. 1, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 13. China is both or neither: it is a society engrossed with the immediate present and also one that witnesses fast and radical changes that are causing the fast liquidation of memory. But unlike in France, the loss of memory does not lead to the increasingly important role of the historians. The task of commemoration is shifted to the cultural sphere and in many cases, limited to the private and psychological realms.
  43. One wonders if these conditions, plus the availability of portable and affordable DV, are what lie behind the enormous energy and momentum of amateur and independent filmmaking that is going on in China now.
  44. See Paul Pickowicz’s article “Social and Political Dynamics of Underground Filmmaking in China” and Yingjin Zhang’s article “My Camera Doesn’t Lie?” in From Underground to Independent.
  45. Ibid.
  46. See Yingjin Zhang, “My Camera Doesn’t Lie?,” 35.
  47. An abridged version of Jia’s Chinese article “I Don’t Believe That You Can Predict Our Ending” (“Wo bu xiangxin ni neng cai dao women de jieju”) was originally published by Southern Weekly http://www.infzm.com/content/47901 in July 2010. The English translation of its full version (tran. by Isabella Tianzi Cai) was published as part of Dong Week at dGeneratefilms’s website.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Ibid.
  50. See Zhang Zhen’s introduction to Urban Generation, 16.
  51. See note 47.
  52. André Bazin, “Bicycle Thief,” in What is Cinema, Vol. II (Berkeley: University of California Press), 47.

About The Author

Jiwei Xiao is Assistant Professor of Chinese language and literature at Fairfield University. She researches modern Chinese literature and contemporary Chinese Cinema. Her recent publications include “The Faithful Traitor: Ang Lee’s Transcultural Aesthetic and his Adaptation of Eileen Chang’s 'Lust, Caution'” (forthcoming in Positions).

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