Like so many Chinese films, 24 City feels deeply familiar to Indian viewers. Despite severe censorship – and, possibly, as a reaction to it – Chinese arthouse filmmakers have been capturing their country’s seismic socio-economic changes with an acuity and clarity that is sometimes missing from Indian cinema.

The director of 24 City is among the best-known chroniclers of the transformation of China from Communist bastion to a tightly controlled experiment in capitalism. Jia Zhangke arrived at the 2008 film after having made the globally feted Platform, The World and Still Life.

24 City, which is available on MUBI, is a mesh of documentary and fiction, with the reasons for the stylistic approach gradually becoming clear. The film begins in 2007, where a munitions factory in Chengdu is being torn down and developed into a sprawling residential complex. Interviews with workers reveal the role played by the factory during the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution, the gradual winding down of a once-bustling workplace, and the beginnings of a privately-run service economy in place of government-led industry.

Followers of Chinese cinema will recognise some of the faces featured in 24 City. Surely Zhao Tao – Jia’s wife and the formidable actor from several of his films – and Joan Chen were not always hanging around the assembly line in Chengdu?

Some of the interviews are with real factory workers, while others are with actors who enact previously recorded conversations. Jia intersperses these memories with footage of an airplane manufacturing unit and the 24 City residential project, which springs out of the landscape with the same dissonance as similar structures in Gurugram or Thane.

The slippery approach, rendered in brilliantly crisp imagery by Wang Yu and Jia’s long-term collaborator Yu Lik-wai, especially makes sense when you listen carefully to what the workers are saying. In their reminiscences, a portrait of China through the decades emerges – a work ethic that emphasises surrender, the tensions between a generation used to following orders and another trying to forge its own path, the shift from steady state-run enterprise to the adventurism of new money.

24 City (2008).

Statements made by the subjects serve as epigraphs between sequences alongside quotes from poems. These pithy remarks, which appear to echo the Chinese state’s myth-making, end up revealing the manner in which Chinese citizens both regurgitate the official narrative on development as well as challenge it in their own ways – the gap between what is expected and what is actually being said between the lines.

Some of the interviews speak of pride over a job well done. Others testify to personal sacrifices. Lovers come and go. Jobs disappear. Insecurity replaces the sureties of the past.

The inventive hybrid approach subverts expectations we might have from the documentary and fiction filmmaking styles. Imagine a Films Division production told as a feature with stunning imagery, performances that appear unscripted, and an editing rhythm that mimics the observational documentary. What is fact and what is fiction? It’s hard to tell in 24 City, just as it is hard to tell in the world that lies beyond the film.

Also in the ‘Start the week with a film’ series

‘So Long, My Son’ and China’s warped development

Austerity (and agony) British-style in ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Decadence, high fashion and cake in ‘Marie Antoinette’