Longed for Jia Zhangke’s film Still Life, this was made in a period of Chinese economic supremacy and the narrative disseminates a contemporary drama about a city preparing to be sunk in the service of China’s Three Gorges hydro-electric dam project. Perhaps this is said to be the biggest controversy of Modern day China, which still residues the perennial social and archaeological consequences. Jia Zhangke creates the poignant reflection of the issues about the displacement of more than a million tribes causing significant ecological changes and eliminating millions of hectares of fertile farm lands, besides thousands of years of history of indigenous groups loosing threads of relationship to the lands of which they live
Still Life is a visible trace of thoughts and implications – a reflection on transience that unfolds the piece of history to the current ambivalence and the cognizance of the globalization at play through the complex, vibrant paradigm of transitional life in China. Jia was extremely taken by the subject and wanted to capture those elements. A thorough slice inspired from a documentary film of the same subject, of what is portrayed as the colossal engineering project dreamt by Chinese leaders almost throughout the 20th century. The Three Gorges Dam project is supposed to be modern china’s major development project ought to be worlds’ largest hydroelectric dam, twelve years in construction between 1994-2006 and due with its power generation in 2009. Its populace embracing the global clouts of capitalist crossover, which fields the domineering political influences of communism ordering resettlements
Jia’s philosophical bearing is deeply felt and his allure on the contemporary China and its globalization are superbly portrayed. As ever the themes of alienated youth, demography, citing austerity of the shift and on the other end of the competitive economies reaching the critical milestone and drag on the modernization is something to realize, besides seldom challenge as one of the stiffest headwinds are hardest to overcome.
This strikingly remarkable film won the Golden Lion the same year at Venice film festival. Jia Zhangke is a rare breed of filmmaker capable of relating fabulous artifice with documentary truth and lead into metamorphic journeys of discovery and transformation. Far and wide, his films like Xiao Wu(1997), Platform (2000); Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), eschew the son et lumière that characterizes many contemporary Chinese directors. As recent after Still Life, with A touch of sin (2014) and Mountains may depart (2015) are his vision of personified conflict in creating a sense of occasion, exploring the fertile territory of storytelling of spectacular and subversive realm through the craft of cinema.
The movie opens up serenely, almost nonchalantly, with long, drifting takes with two distinct slice of story set in Fengjie, a discontent city upstream of the massive Three Gorges Dam. In serene and those drifts, the tale of first is about a poor miner (Hans Sanming), who returns to the small town sixteen years of his exile in search of his ex-wife Missy and daughter, with a fervent hope to meet them one last time and only to find that during his absence the place has been flooded. In that similar situation and time, a nurse called Shen Hong (Zhao Tao, in many of the director’s previous films), also arrives looking for her own husband Guo Bin, an engineer who has been working on the dam project for the last two years and who she seems to suspect of having an affair.
The story in turn exposes the interwoven layers the way as it happens. The miner Hans chooses to stopover and meets the local teen Brother Mark who assists to get him a job as a demolitions worker. On the other side, Shen boards the help of one of her husband’s pal, Wang Dongming, who lets her stay at his home as she discovers Guo had become a fairly successful businessman in town and having an affair with his wealthy investor. The inescapable approaches as both Shen and Guo meet at last. However Guo persuades her to return back. Shen rejects voicing that she has fallen in love with someone and implores a divorce. Guo queries about her new love and her torment response goes “Does it really matter?”
The story then cuts back to Hans to the last chapter where we find Brother Mark is fatally injured in a collapse of a wall during the demolishing while turns out to be a murder by the real estate goons contracted by Guo. Subsequently Hans is informed by the call from his brother-in-law about Missy’s return. Hans meet Missy and ask her the reason of her moving away, to which she answers, “I was young, what did I know?” she expresses her daughter works for a boat owner further south pledged as a bonded labour due to her brothers’ debt. He declares of paying the debt to bring her back. He is then joined by his new friends and coworkers to help him respite knowing it’s an absorbedly dangerous situation. Just as Hans prepares to depart, we see a man walking athwart a tight-rope appears in the milieu
Still Life captures a significant realism of the today’s interlocked lives. The characters are exceptionally matured. Jia’s concern is seriously wound upon the individuals whose lives are disrupted, displaced and desperate by unending vagaries and the description through the shift of the unrestrained reality has a textual feel to it. The camera is an eye sparkler captures those fleeting voids. The implausible anguish and their state of minds of Hans and Shen, as passive victims of the circumstance of what we voice as the response to a new social and historical conjuncture of modern day China and the confiscations in the traversing space providing a multiple and moving perspective is undoubtedly a cinematic delight
If life had it all in its stillness, there is nothing to save, and in fact the time devoid of any action, the mind’s eye leap into the unknown boundary and perhaps the whole place drowns in the hidden sorrow and those empty moments somewhere, but a tiny core in the heart like the dot of a dust travels in all day and night. Yes, the silence we learn is sometimes the most beautiful sound and Jia’s under duress ‘Still Life,’ a sheer slice of celluloid poetry
- Written & Directed by Jia Zhangke
- Produced by Xu Pengle; Wang Tianyun & Zhu Jiong
- Co-written by Sun Jianming & Guan Na
- Starcast: Zhao Tao & Han Sanming
- Music by Lim Giong
- Cinematography by Yu Lik-wai
- Edited by Kong Jinglei
- Distributed by Xstream Pictures
- Release dates: September 5, 2006 (Venice)
- Run time of 108 minutes
- Country: China