Gated housing is the subject of Rodrigo Pla's razor-sharp feature "La Zona" (The Zone), from Mexico. The film begins with inviting shots of suburban mansions, one or two SUVs in each driveway, manicured green lawns. As the camera pulls up and away, however, we see that this idyllic neighborhood of the film's title is surrounded by a high wall, topped with barbed wire, with surveillance cameras every few hundred meters. On the other side of the wall is the real Mexico City, where rundown homes and hovels run up and down the hillsides chaotically, their very existence posing a threat to the clean, orderly universe within The Zone.
But, as in any horror movie, these two worlds are destined to meet; in this case, a storm topples a billboard, which crushes part of the wall, allowing three young petty thieves to enter The Zone. They burglarize a home and are confronted by its owner, an elderly woman, and brutally kill her. Two of the three are themselves killed in short order, but the third, a terrified 16-year-old, escapes into the neighborhood, which enters a state of near-panic because a murderer is on the loose.The community has an arrangement with the police that guarantees it autonomy over its security, but one local cop is determined to get involved and bring the missing burglar out of The Zone alive.
This is not a story destined to end happily, one senses from quite early on, but what makes this first full-length feature by the Uruguayan-born Pla especially enjoyable are the subtle (and less subtle) gradations between characters on both sides of the wall.
On the ideological level, one's real sympathy has to go to the have-nots in Mexico, who haven't got a chance, even when they play by the rules.
At the same time, though, it's not hard to identify with the well-off residents, with their desire to protect their homes (which looked to me like Mexican versions of American faux-Mexican ranch homes) and families, especially when the alternative to their vigilante justice is relying on the police, which may well mean no justice at all.
Pla keeps "The Zone" (it has been picked up by an Israeli distributor, so you should soon have the opportunity to see it, and do) grounded by focusing on one family, whose father is one of the security chiefs for the community, and who is torn between his and his wife's natural decency and, on the other hand, a rumor-ridden, riled-up neighborhood committee demanding hangman's justice.
Their no-less-decent teenage son gets caught in the middle of the drama when he is confronted by the hunted invader, and must decide what he's going to do with him.
Perhaps the greatest joy of attending a film festival is being exposed to other cultures and other environments, and of course being reminded how much we humans all have in common, whichever culture we reside in.
The characters interviewed in Jia Zhang-ke's "24 City" are certainly people one can understand and feel sympathy for, but when one discovers that this film about a changing China is part documentary, part feature (with some characters playing themselves and others being depicted by actors), it's tough not to feel disoriented, if not a bit cheated.
Nonetheless, "24 City" gives us an inside look into how capitalism continues to change China. It does this by introducing us to another walled community, the recently closed Factory 420 in the southwestern city of Chengdu. (If, like me, you never heard of Chengdu before, let me make us both feel worse by telling you that it's a city of 11 million, the capital of Sichuan province, site of May's earthquake.)
The factory was a major defense installation, producing aircraft engines, and its employees had their own housing, schools and stores and the prestige that once was afforded to workers who wore uniforms and labored in industrial plants. A few years ago, it became clear to the Chengya Group, the private company that now owns the factory, that the land on which it stood would give a better return if developed residentially (sound familiar?), and Factory 420 was taken apart, piece by piece, and replaced with countless luxury apartment towers.
Jia's interest is the people who worked there over the decades, including the almost lone laborer who stayed on the job during the Cultural Revolution, when we're told that people stopped coming to work, and his former boss, Master Wang, now in his dotage. The pride and dedication felt by the old-timers, all now retired, is touching, and is counterpointed by the attitude of those of the younger generation who are interviewed and describe how factory work seems, in the words of one, "like the saddest thing I'd ever seen in my life."
That line was uttered by a young woman named Su Wa, who today works as a buyer, traveling to Hong Kong every two weeks to purchase luxury items for women in China who don't have time to do their own shopping. Su Wa's eyes filled with tears as she described a surprise visit she paid to her mother at a factory some years ago, and how upsetting it was to see a woman doing manual labor, and not being able to tell, from behind, whether she was a man or a woman. I found Su Wa's testimony moving and revealing. Silly me - I couldn't tell that she was being portrayed by an actress.
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