24 City (2009) is a Chinese film that had won accolades in international film circuits. A fictional take on a supposed Chinese state-owned factory in Chengdu that had produced aeronautical components in its heydays and is now in a bad shape. Its huge landholdings are parcelled off as a new apartment complex called “24 City”. The film is a documentary-style take on this in the way of interviews with former employees and their children. It is available on Kanopy.com.
A former worker, a lady says I used to work before getting laid off in the 1990s and now I am doing tailoring as part-time work. She adds “If you have something to do, you age slower“. What a profound statement!
The factory didn’t have a name and was identified simply as “Factory 420” as it was a state secret. They made components for military aeroplanes which was used in war efforts like in the Korean war and others. To keep the secret, every employee was paid a 5-yuan as a bonus.
An old lady, a former employee, now in her 80s, recalls of how she and her husband came from the North-East of the country to work in Chengdu (in the South-West). She was 21 years of age at the time and the couple had a 3-year old boy travelling with them through a water body from Shanghai. During a port call for an hour, the couple were busy shopping for supplies, they lost their boy and couldn’t find him. Missing to board the ship was not an option, as it was almost like an Army Conscription and the others around them forcefully got them on board, leaving behind their boy and the news of what happened to him.
The factory 420 was a huge complex, a city on to itself, with no connection to the Chengdu city or its people outside. The factory complex had schooling from Kindergarten to Senior Secondary, swimming pools, basketball courts, during summers the factory even made their own cool drinks for workers to take home.
Once the factory had put up a young handsome man’s photo in the notice board with no caption. Everyone was speculating who he was and what he was doing – a lady worker named “Little Flower” fell in love with the person in the photo. After weeks, in a town hall meeting, the Director announced that he was a pilot who died in a plane crash when trying to save the plane and not parachuting himself earlier. His accident was due to a faulty component made in the factory and added that “we should reflect on our mistakes“. Read it again and realise what a powerful work lesson that no one there would forget in their lifetime.
Without trying hard, the movie brings out the sharp differences that happened in a lifetime for the workers there – first in the Chairman Mao era, then during the Deng Xiaoping times and in the modern consumer culture years. Listening to the old people recall a bygone era and some of the silent portraits of people starring in the camera, we are made to almost cry and contemplate our blessings to be living in modern times.
If you have the patience for a documentary-style narration and an interest in this genre, check out this film.