Essay / Double Identities and Post-socialist Chinese Memories in Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ and ’24 City’

by Xiying Xu
edited by Anthony Kuan and Lily-Cannelle Mathieu


After the arrival of the mini-DV camera in China in the late 1990s, and under the influence of foreign filmmaking models such as cinéma vérité  and direct cinema[ii], the Chinese independent documentary genre blossomed. Chinese independent filmmakers used documentaries as a means to record the lives of marginalized people in society and project personal convictions that defied state media outlets and the dominant narratives imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. Jia Zhangke, one of the most influential figures among the “Six Generation” directors who launched China’s independent film movement, exposed the authentic living situation of the underclass through his camera and raised awareness about the dramatic economic and social changes in contemporary China. In particular, Jia’s Still Life (2006) and 24 City (2008) showcase his ability to provoke a re-examination of the relationship between real and fictional narratives, and that between personal memories and collective historical record.

Beyond aiming to discover and archive particular realities, new technologies have brought significant ideological and artistic statements to documentary filmmaking. For instance, With technological advances of the recent decades, modern documentaries have transcended thewith new styles of narrative and visual aesthetics.  Indeed, docufiction, a hybrid genre between documentary and fictional storytelling, has emerged as a particularly innovative practice in modern cinematography. Docufiction directors deliberately project their manipulation of reality and the subjectivity of their works to the audience. They remind the latter that they are not passive viewers, but rather active interpreters who carry on “the duty of reading the sign and choosing between its different meanings”.

In his film Still Life (2006), Jia demonstrates his cinematic talents in what Howard Feinstein describes as a combination of “stunning artifice with documentary truth.”[v]Still Life is concerned with the daily lives of demolition workers and other “normal” people in Fengjie, a dying industrial town bound for destruction after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam project. Jia found inspiration for this film during his journey with painter Liu Xiaodong, during which he was working on another documentary, Dong (2006). Still Life and Dong share the same subjects, the same group of demolition workers. It may surprise some viewers that Still Life’s protagonist Han Sanming also appears in Dong as a model for the painter Liu Xiaodong. Moreover, both films contain footage and scenes taken from the other. In employing common cast and footage, both films collectively blur the boundary between fact and fiction, thus provoking an examination of the realities portrayed in the respective narratives.

Similarly, 24 City (2008), one of Jia’s most controversial films, combines fictional and non-fictional elements to present personal memories and experiences in the Chengfa Group, a that is going to be demolished. With scenes shot in the factory and in private spaces, such as living rooms and hair salons, the film contains interviews with both real former factory workers and professional actors. Notable celebrities, including Joan Chen, Lü Liping, Zhao Tao, and Chen Jianbin, all play leading roles in the film. As Wang (2015) observes, many among the Chinese audience struggle to reconcile the identities of these famous actors with that of the factory workers they portray.[vi] Applying documentary film theories with sequence analysis and a socio-cultural approach, I argue that in Jia’s Still Life and 24 City, the dual identities of the characters as both real actors and fictional creations are understood by the audience through their intertextual knowledge of other films and cultures. These identities allow the audience to approach and interpret individual and collective memories in post-socialist China through their personal experiences of the country’s recent history.

The use of the same actor, Han, as a fictional character in Still Life and as the protagonist in Dong obscures the depiction of reality and fiction in Jia’s documentaries. This dual-identity reifies the environment of Fengjie and the personal experience of its residents before its impending demolition. In its introduction, Still Life replicates the scene from Dong where Han passes by a building while a wall on the second floor of a building collapses. In Still Life, Han is a Shanxi coal miner who searches for his wife and daughter in Fengjie. He takes a job as a demolition worker to earn money and meets different people who are in similar dire circumstances. In the documentary practice of realism, shots are usually performed in fixed framing and long takes to maintain the “objectivity” of the camera. Tracking Han’s movements in a the camera records the natural landscapes, the human communities, and the crumbling infrastructure of Fengjie before its demise. In Dong, Han is also a demolition worker and serves as a model for an artist named Liu Xiaodong. The modeling scene starts when Han is posing in front of a banister and Liu is painting him on the canvas. From the close-ups of the movements of the brush’s strokes on the canvas, the camera then pans to the real Han, who is squatting on the ground, emphasizing his identities as an icon and a person. To some extent, Han embodies one of the anonymous demolition workers in Fengjie, and whether Han is a real or a fictional character is not the major concern. As he witnesses the physical and social changes of the city and participates in its destruction, he becomes the representative of the Fengjie people, who survive, persist, and struggle with the loss of their homes, culture, and history.

Besides the appearance of Han, other direct allusions between Still Life and Dong generate a sense of integrity that emphasizes the films’ shared background and theme. Still Life can be considered as a deeper exploration of the topics addressed in Dong, namely the social consequences of the Three Gorges Dam project on local population. In a later scene, after some workers have died from work-related accidents, Liu delivers photographs to their families, which contain images of these deceased workers, as memorial gifts. This scene indicates that art, as a powerful medium, can preserve life and spirit. Like Liu’s painting, Jia’s camera captures human bodies and human souls. Still Life and Dong share a common purpose: to preserve cultural and collective memories of a space before it disappears entirely. In Dong, Liu openly shows his fascination with the power and masculinity of the half-naked demolition workers, while also sympathizing with their dismal fates. He mentions that the purpose of painting the demolition workers in Fengjie and the prostitutes in Thailand is to ultimately confer dignity on his painted subjects. In its humanist approach to documenting normal people in Fengjie in wake of sweeping social and economic reforms, Jia’s Still Life echoes the same principle expressed by Liu in Dong.

24 City is also a film about demolition, memories, and ordinary people. The film is shot on-site in the form of interviews with factory workers. During the interviews, Jia uses long-takes, deep-focus, natural lighting, and sounds to emulate cinéma vérité. There are three instances of a “black leader” effect, in which black frames function as transitions of different discourse periods or as indications of the interviewees’ “emotional breakdowns”.[vii] The black leader effect functions as natural pauses during the sequence, which reinforces the authenticity of the interview. However, Jia still reminds us of the presence of the camera in his interactions with the interviewees, the intertitles, and the frame stylizations of some scenes. In particular, the obvious emphasis on the double identity of “Little Flower” in the shows the application of fictional elements in the film in tandem with cinematic manipulation. This technique encourages the audience’s intellectual and emotional engagement with 24 City through historical and cultural references to the widely popular film Little Flower (1979).

One of the most striking and impressive elements of 24 City, indeed, is the director’s audacious attempt to allude to Little Flower’s eponymous protagonist. Chinese actress Joan Chen first received major acclaim for her portrayal of “Little Flower” in the film Little Flower, one of the biggest Chinese blockbusters of the 1980s. In 24 City, Chen assumes the role of Minhua Gu, who is nicknamed “Little Flower” by her co-workers because of her resemblance to the character in her youth. At the ending of the Minhua Gu section, footage from Little Flower is shown on a small television, with its theme song playing in the background. The camera then pans to capture Gu in a medium shot as she is watching the clip and reflecting in silence in the kitchen.

For Gu, the remote and no longer attainable youth and passion of her character in Little Flower opens a personal gateway to the past. In contrast to Little Flower’s protagonist, who obtains a prosperous life under state socialism,  Chen, as she is watching her own performance on the television, reflects on her career and other personal experiences. After her success in the role of “Little Flower,” Chen went to California to study filmmaking and started to pursue her acting career in the United States. In order to make a living, she had to be cast as an exotic beauty in Hollywood films for a long time. Not until 1998 did she have the chance to return to the mainland to make Chinese films again. Reminiscent of the tumultuous social and economic transformations between the Maoist and Reform eras, the character of “Little Flower” resonates with Chen’s character, Chen herself, and much of the Chinese diaspora.

Similar to Gu’s experience, when the audience watches the footage and hears the theme song of Little Flower, the collective cultural and social memories from a generation are re-experienced and personal cognitive and emotional memories are felt once more. Released at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Little Flower transcended contemporary political propaganda with its unconventional narrative and .[viii] To some critics, Little Flower can even be considered as “a milestone in New China’s film history”.[ix] Some audiences may sympathize with Gu’s story as a powerless female worker in China who, still nostalgic about Mao’s China, has “no choice but to swim with the tide of globalization”.[x] But for other Chinese who immigrated overseas during the 1980s, this scene arouses more complex feelings about modern China, which is still rapidly changing through massive market reforms. Thus, a generation’s historical memories are awakened by the playing of Little Flower, its music, and the stories of both Gu and her actress.

For Chinese filmmakers like Jia, who pursue social responsibility and justice by using their cameras, docufiction can be a powerful and effective art form. It records the real lives of the people who suffer and struggle in society yet remain invisible and voiceless in mainstream discourse. At the same time, this cinematic practice also draws the audience’s attention to fabrication and manipulation by filmmakers. With their provocative themes and popular appeal, the films Dong, Still Life, and 24 City are focused on the marginalized members of Chinese society “who are historically residual and being forgotten in the epic-historical vacuum”.[xi] With allusions to cinematic, cultural, and historical references, the dual identities of the actors in Jia’s films Still Life and 24 City allow for multi-faceted interpretations of the protagonists, hence enhancing the audience’s understanding of the political and social messages of these films through the awakening of their personal memories and reflections on modern China. Jia tries to retrieve the neglected past by presenting individual experiences and approaching and reshaping collective cultural memories. He not only uses documentary realism to recall the realities of post-socialist China under unprecedented political and economic changes, but also applies fictional and surrealist elements in his films to make a unique artistic contribution to contemporary Chinese cinema.


Xiying Xu is a recent graduate of McGill University’s cultural studies program. Her principal research interests are in Asian film and media culture, documentary film theories, and avant-garde film asethetics. Her passion for cinematography and popular media also extends beyond academia, as she is currently a freelance Chinese screenwriter and a media coordinator for the Canada China International Film Festival.



[ii] Originating in North America in the 1960s, Direct Cinema is a documentary genre which attempts to capture reality as truthfully and objectively as possible. Cinéma vérité is another  influential film movement which originated in France in the 1960s. This movement is characterized by a director’s efforts to raise the audience’s awareness of the broader filmmaking process during the film itself.

[iii] Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13, no.4 (1960): 7.

[iv] Barbara Jenni, “Fusion cinema: the relationship between Jia Zhangke’s films Dong and Still Life,” On East Asian Filmmakers, ed. Kate E Taylor-Jones (London: Wallflower Press, 2011), 55.

[v] Howard Feinstein, “Films of the decade: ‘Still Life’,” Salon, 2009.

[vi] Qi Wang, “The Recalcitrance of Reality: performances, subjects, and filmmakers in 24 City and Tape,” Dv-made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations After Independent Film, ed. Zhen Zhang and Angela Zito (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 222.

[vii] Ibid., 220.

[viii] Biao Chen, “PRC Cinema at 60: Review and Retrospect,” The China Pictorial 2, 2009.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Esther. M. K. Cheung, “Realisms within Conundrum,” China Perspectives 1, 2010, 20.

[xi] Ibid., 11.


Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Translated by Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly 13, no.4 (1960): 4-9.

Chen, Biao. “PRC Cinema at 60: Review and Retrospect.” The China Pictorial 2, 2009. Accessed May 9, 2018.

Cheung, Esther. M. K. “Realisms within Conundrum.” China Perspectives 1, 2010. Accessed May 9, 2018.

Feinstein, Howard. “Films of the decade: ‘Still Life’.” Salon, 2009. Accessed May 9, 2018.

Jenni, Barbara. “Fusion cinema: the relationship between Jia Zhangke’s films Dong and Still Life.” On East Asian Filmmakers. Edited by Kate E Taylor-Jones. London: Wallflower Press, 2011.

Jia, Zhangke. Sanxia Hao Ren: Still Life. Performed by Pengle Xu, Tianyun Wang, Tao Zhao, Sanming Han, Liwei Yu, Qiang Lin, and Jing-Lei Kong. 2006; New York: New Yorker Video, 2008. DVD.

Jia, Zhangke. Dong. Performed by Liu Xiaodong. 2006; New York: dGenerate Films, 2010. DVD.

Jia, Zhangke. 24 City. Performed by Joan Chen, Lü Liping, Zhao Tao, and Chen Jianbin. 2008; New York:Cinema Guild, 2010. DVD.

Wang, Qi. “The Recalcitrance of Reality: performances, subjects, and filmmakers in 24 City and Tape.” Dv-made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations After Independent Film. Edited by Zhen Zhang and Angela Zito. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.




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