Review: Jia Zhang-ke’s “Still Life”

Jia Zhang-ke - Still LifeThe title of Jia Zhang-ke’s 2006 film would seem at first to be grimly ironic, since the Three Gorges Dam, around which the film’s bifurcated narrative revolves, has caused the lives of everyone around it to be anything but still. At the same time, Jia’s moody, contemplative camerawork forces us to pay attention to the impact of China’s rapid progress.

In Still Life, Jia’s loose structure unfolds with the uncommon grace and unforced lyricism which is his forte. Almost everything we see is in an advanced state of decay and disrepair, yet possesses its own unsettling beauty. This brings to mind two documentaries set in China, both vivid evocations of this country’s twenty-first century industrial age: Jennifer Bachiwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, about the photography of Edward Burtynsky, and Jia’s own documentary Dong, the reality companion piece to the (mostly) fictional Still Life. As Jia told me in an interview I conducted with him in 2007, “I see movies as a tool to record memory.” Memory of what is rapidly being lost is one of the many eloquent themes of Jia’s film, and the loss of the past is what links the two non-converging stories he tells in Still Life.

In the first story, Sanming (Huang Sanming), a coal miner, travels from Shanxi province (also Jia’s birthplace) to the town of Fengjie to search for the wife and daughter he lost 16 years ago. Along the way he meets, and sometimes befriends, an array of fascinating characters, each of whom could be the subject of their own film. The first address Sanming searches (written on the carton of a long-defunct brand of cigarettes) is now only a strip of grass in the vast body of water created by the dam. To earn money, he participates in the same destruction that consumed his old home, helping to tear down buildings earmarked for demolition to make way for the dam. Sanming looks every inch his age, and every year seems to have taken its toll on him. Yet, there remains within him an irrepressible spirit, and he strives to make amends for neglecting important matters in his younger years. Despite being a willing agent in the destruction of his country’s memory, his efforts to mend his personal life and to fully connect his past and his future place him in sharp contrast to his government and its headlong rush to destroy centuries of culture in order to pursue an insanely rapid pace of prosperity. The death of one of the men he befriends leads directly to his own symbolic rebirth, when at the conclusion of his story he returns to Shanxi with a renewed life purpose. Jia’s beautifully nuanced rendering of Sanming’s story eschews simple despair and agitprop anger in order to create a more poetic vision of life’s circularity and ability to encompass humor and melancholy, tragedy and beauty.

In the second story, Shen Hong (Jia regular Zhao Tao, marvelous), a nurse, searches for her husband Guo Bin (Li Zhubin), who abandoned her two years before. She goes to his workplace, where her husband, much like Sanming, works on demolishing buildings. Unlike Sanming, however, Guo Bin is in a much higher social class, overseeing a large staff. To complement his official employees, he also hires local thugs to persuade those reluctant to leave their homes to make way for the demolition. As Shen Hong searches for her husband, she incessantly drinks water, filling her bottle along the way, a sly reference to the vast body of water that is submerging Fengjie as a result of the dam. Shen Hong’s story ends with a subtle twist that is remarkable for the almost throw-away manner in which it is delivered. This clues us in to the fact that Jia is less interested in narrative than he is in the palpable mood of loss and disappearance.

Although Sanming and Shen Hong never meet, their stories are connected by an odd visual trope (which I won’t give away), which counteracts the downbeat realism of the film’s scenario, and exhibits a playfulness of form that tempers the sadness which permeates the film. Still Life, which earned Jia a Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, continues an extraordinary body of work that always privileges humanism over politics and ideology, and uses cinema as a tool for this quest to powerful effect.