Jia Zhangke's revered masterwork of the last decade shines as one of the definitive films of this unique period in political, economic and industrial change in China. Still Life, a haunting medidative work, magnificently juxtaposes the journey of two lost souls in search of their loved ones against the background of a centuries-old rural way of life about to be drowned for all eternity by rapid progress.
Still Life (2006) dir. Jia Zhangke
Starring: Tao Zhao, Zhou Lan, Sanming Han, Lizhen Ma, Hongwei Wang
By Alan Bacchus
The Three Gorges Dam is China’s massive hydroelectric dam, a marvel of engineering built in 2006 and the largest power station in the world. As a manmade structure that tamed the great Yangtze River, it became a symbol of the might of the new Chinese economy. But because of the ensuing environmental impact and displacement of millions of rural citizens, it’s also seen as a stake for liberal activism in the country.
Ironically, out of this massive economic change and upheaval begat a number of great international films in the past few years. Yung Chang’s great documentary, Up the Zangtze, showed this change from the point of view of a tourist sailing a boat on the river. Jia Zhangke’s celebrated Venice Golden Lion winner, Still Life, is arguably the crowning artistic statement of this period of change.
Han Sanming is a coalminer arriving in the town of Fengjie, which is about to be flooded. He’s searching for his wife who left him 16 years ago with a daughter he’s never seen. Han goes from person to person asking about his wife and where she might be, with each person guiding him to the next, like connect the dots. There’s also Shen Hong, a nurse in Fengjie, who is searching for her husband, Guo Bing, who hasn’t come home in 2 years. Like Han, she wanders through the near wasteland of vacant buildings and impossibly beautiful mountainous landscapes looking for answers.
Through the compartmentalization of Han's and Shen’s scenes (Han is featured in the first third, Shen in the second, then Han again in the final third), Zhangke forms a rudimentary three act structure. But nothing at all feels familiar in Zhangke’s world. While the real-life personalities he finds and uses as actors in his film along the way lend an observational documentary-like feel, there’s a strong tone of mystical realism. At one point from Shen’s daydreaming point of view we see her imagining one of the derelict building skeletons suddenly launching into the sky like a rocket ship. Zhangke elegantly weaves these elements of spiritual fantasy into deeply emotional personal character stories.
Despite the title, Still Life seems to be constantly in motion, albeit slow and methodical at a snail’s pace. But it is motion and we can feel it. In every frame, people are constantly working like worker bee drones in unity for the greater purpose, either swinging sledgehammers to demolish the massive buildings that now look like industrial carcasses of the former Communist era, or operating large and complex machinery while making trinkets for the West.
Or perhaps it's a Maoist metaphor for the ability of the Chinese people to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Zhangke’s camera complements these themes, moving at the same pace, creeping into its subjects like a Hitchcockian voyeur, or just elegantly gliding across the often astonishing visuals.
It truly is a visual masterpiece featuring one stunning composition after another, at all times making us reconcile in our minds the achievements of man against the achievement of nature and earth.