Still Life, is, in its discreet way, another dystopian fable, dealing with the end of civilisation. The film is set in the last days of a 2000 year old city, Fengjie, over an unclear period of a time. The town will be submerged as a result of the Three Gorge’s dam being built on the Yangtze river, and the film follows the journeys of two unconnected characters who travel there looking for their missing spouses.
The currents of history, both personal and political, flow through the film, suggesting the rootlessness caused by the political act of destroying the city is mirrored in the lives of the citizens in the new China. The labourer Han Sanming comes to the town by river to seek a wife who left him sixteen years ago. His story is counterpointed by that of Mrs Guo, the wife of a party official, who has not seen him for two years. Her story is sandwiched within Han Sanming’s, and any connections are implicit, rather than direct.
Han Sanming’s is played with a kind of virile docility by the actor who shares his name. A labourer who knows little of the city but arrives and becomes a part of its destruction, working in the demolition teams. These are frequently captured on film like the still lives of the title, the labourers framed from a distance, sometimes sillhouetted. The act of labour eclipses the artifacts of labour – buildings and monuments collapse at the whim of history (Mrs Guo’s contact for her husband is an archeologist, excavating ruins within soon-to-be-ruins) but human toil continues until the bitter end.
Still Life is a stately film, infused with the torpor of Sichuan Province. Nothing happens in a hurry. A cigarette lingers, a husband waits sixteen years before he decides to find his lost wife. When he does she asks him to sit down and offers him a plate of noodles. Civilisations come and go, but history is subject to the sluggish tide of human development and perception. Some of the most eye catching scenes in the film are a-historical: the monument blasting into space; and the filmmaker’s whimsical depiction of a UFO, the only point of connection between the twin protagonists, suggesting that no matter what influence the historical powers of China seek to exert on history, even geography, there will always be forces beyond their control.