Review: "Still Life" (Jia, China)

Daniel Kasman

With not a little irony Jia Zhangke staged the drama of his film The World amongst replicas of famous buildings from around the globe, and the contrast between the World Park’s simulated setting and the neo-realism of Jia shooting his latest film Still Life around the actual Three Gorges Dam is stunning. It is a fresh, relieving change of course from the previous film’s overwrought, overburdened allegorical setting. With a plot staged much as an excuse simply for cinematographer Yu Lik-wai to photograph the region before it is submerged in water (throughout the film government crews are constantly spray-painting indicators of the next stage in water level around the homes and neighborhood in the film), Still Life acts first and foremost as a pictorial recording of a landscape in tremendous transition. Yu’s digital camera captures both the dilapidated and soon-to-be abandoned urban dwellings surrounding the edge of the water, as well as longer views of the valleys and vistas of the area, intrinsically seeing them as both mesmerizingly tangled, horrendously interwoven landscapes (the large buildings weave amongst the hills that rise and fall around the river, making for an uncanny combination of natural and man-made landscape), as well as “natural” burial grounds for an already obliterated area—the river that is constantly in the center of the film’s compositions is actually the resting place for a centuries-old town. The film starts and ends with Han Sangming, who plays a working-class man from the Shanxi region traveling to the Three Gorges area to find his wife and daughter who abandoned him 16 years ago. The address Han brings with him was from before the construction started, and the neighborhood his family used to live in is now several meters under water, giving Han problems tracking them down. Bookended by Han’s story is that of Hong Shen (Jia’s usual actress, Zhao Tao) who also is traveling to the Dam site to find a missing spouse, except that her and her husband are middle-class professionals. While both her husband and Han’s wife seem to have left their spouses for the financial opportunities (and perhaps freedom) afforded around the Dam’s construction, Han’s wife ekes out an existence working on a boat for food whereas Hong’s husband is a prominent businessman who entertains clients visiting the area. Both plots—as well as their similarities—are quite threadbare, and just as an immense landscape painting will have a tiny human figure in the corner to root the physical setting for a human observer or give it an excuse for existence, so too does Still Life use Han and Hong as wandering vector points, from which the camera can see past them to the tumultuous construction area, its past (the old natural vistas, the still-standing cities) and its present (the submerged cities, demolition crews, and the influx of new workers and inhabitants). With both characters searching for elements of their past—Han so that he can recapture it and make up for lost time, and Hong so that she can move on to a new future—Jia uses his simple stories to align two different attitudes with the present-day documenting of this particular stage in the dam’s construction. Stuck recording the tremulous present status of the construction, Jia uses these two human stories to express both the past that has been lost by the project, one that is only suggestible (as in the address of Han’s wife, written down on the wrapped of an outdated cigarette brand) and no longer capturable by camera, as well as a desire or at least a recognition that after this there will be a future, something new and unforeseeable. That most of Still Life is devoted to Han’s loss rather than Hong’s new start suggests how Jia views the effects of the Three Gorges Dam. Yu’s photography is as always beautiful, capturing in smudgy, impressionistic pans and hugely deep-focus tableaux the immensity of the valley, the ever-present oppression of the murky haze that hangs over the area, the clammy bodies of the migrant workers both in action and in repose, and the blotchy, out-of-place existence of large buildings huddled against the receding walls of the gorge. It is no surprise that the film project that initiated Still Life and makes for its companion piece (though I have yet to see it) is a documentary on a painter working in the region. The film itself is essentially a documentary of a very real area that is now gone and only partly unrecognizable (an official voice-over on a river ferry says that the next stage in water raising will take place in May 2006, so much of where the film is set truly no longer exists) and one on fictional characters whose existence and problems exist in the past, as unseen as their open futures lay at the end of the film. The irony of the English title of the film is that while both Han and Hong’s lives are very much in a kind of paralysis, as they fitfully search to either reunite with the past or break with it for a new beginning, their travels to the region, wanderings around the valley, and constant activity (Han takes a job as a demotions man as he waits for his wife to show up, and Hong visits all of her husband’s haunts around town) are anything but still. For all of its use of the characters as motivators and human roots for shooting around the area of the dam, and for the film’s own stilled aesthetic of silences, pauses, plaintive shots of the surroundings, and dead time, Still Life is very much about the tumult, movement, and bodies inside this picture. It is filled with arriving people searching for their pasts, current inhabitants driven out of their homes, workers, meals, the constantly rising water, the constant demolishing of old buildings, and the connections between all these things, the new bridges, the back and forth rhythm of the ferries, and, most whimsically and mysteriously, the flying speck of light (a UFO?) that both Han and Hong spy and whose arrival connects their stories. The dialectic between these stilled landscape shots and the movement inside the film itself is reflected in a sublime visual motif used here and there in the film, which has Han or Hong stand within a building that looks out towards the river and the valley, so that the window they look out of literally frames the landscape like a picture, as if the characters hardly notice what’s going on around them amongst their preoccupation with their lives. In fact, the only real “still lives” in the film are the charming though ambiguous moments when an object in a scene will unexpectedly be held in a shot and a small title comes up. For example, when Hong is searching for the location of her husband she goes breaks open his locker at his old factory job and looks through the items, the camera dollies in to a package of tea, and the name of the object fades into the corner of the screen. Jia is as interested in (literally) the big picture as he is in these small object details that make up the exchange-based commerce around the area, catching in the frame arbitrary commodities like liquor, cigarettes, candy and money. The latter is referenced several times in the film, often with a sad amusement, as in the scene when Han gets roped into a magic act upon his arrival in the area. The magician turns blank paper first into Euros and then into Chinese money, and finally has the audacity to charge the clearly impoverished workers for seeing him magically create wealth. Perhaps most poignant of all is the confluence of these objects with the landscape, seen is the way the migrant workers exchange greetings by showing off pictures of famed landmarks from home through their etched representations on Chinese currency (Han then compares the bill to the real thing later in the film!). It turns out that Still Life is centered not only the landscape or in the commercial details of China’s burgeoning capitalism or just on the people but rather on all these things, on the changes occurring, the lives effected, the detritus of life and of the area. For all its surface simplicity, the film is immense in what it records, in the changes it documents, in its deadpan humor and whimsy (including a half-built structure that turns into a rocket ship, references to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and particularly lovely concluding shots), in its the reticent sorrow, and in its openness for a future after the Three Gorges Dam.

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