Independent Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s fifth film – and his second that’s passed the Chinese censors – contrasts a poetic, lyrical technique with the harsh realities of everyday life in China. Committed to showing “Chinese reality without distortion,” Jia casts a despondent look at the corruption of everyday life through two parallel stories centered around the Three Gorges Dam.
The coal miner Han Sanming grew up in Fengjie, a 2000 year old town destined for submersion. He returns to his hometown to look for his wife and daughter, who left him 16 years ago, only to find that his street he grew up on is already lost beneath the rising waters. At the same time, Shen Hong searches for her husband, who left for Fengjie two years prior for lucrative contractor work, and has only spoken to her briefly over the phone since.
The beauty of Still Life stems from its ability to engage us on several levels simultaneously. For starters, it’s a rigorously spare examination of the less-than-glitzy realities of Chinese life. We witness a culture filled with corruption, a startling acceptance of the amoral vicissitudes requisite for survival. Jia’s actors communicate this with an emotional detachment worthy of Bresson, while Yu Lik-wai’s camera work pans across his canvases with a lush mix of Tarkovian patience and Coutardian saturation (all unbelievably shot with digital video).
Instead of functionally narrative intertitles, Jia’s punctuates scenes with banal and seemingly random commodities pulled from their surroundings. Combined with the camera’s lack of commitment to its subjects and two very unexpected mystical non-sequitur, we’re left to contemplate Jia’s overall message. Is this a poetic attempt to communicate the vagaries and insignificance of his character’s lives in the midst of an overpopulated nation, a vanishing culture, and an uncaring and omnipresent bureaucracy? Or is this simply a way for Jia to transmit a less-than-accepted message to the world in a way that censors might not catch? Or perhaps it’s both – or neither.
Either way, from Still Life’s opening shot, I was transfixed by the film’s stark beauty and patient pacing. It won the Golden Lion upon its premiere at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, and its theatrical release in the US in 2008 has seen it top several critics’ “best-of-08” lists. Although its art-film flavor is likely unpalatable for mass consumption, I have no doubt that it will influence serious film-makers for years to come.