Jia Zhangke’s Golden Lion-award-winning Still Life (in Chinese, Sanxia Haoren, or “The Good People of the Three Gorges”) isn’t quite the masterpiece that we’ve come to expect from the man responsible for the pitch-perfect The World (2004) or Platform (2000). But save for a few minor hiccups, it comes awfully close.
The plot, as is often the case in Jia’s films, is window dressing of the plainest variety. In two non-overlapping storylines (fans of Babel and Crash, take heed), a middle-aged coal miner from the Shanxi province (bedraggled looking newcomer Han Sanming), in search of his ex-wife and daughter, arrives in Fengjie village, where he discovers that it has become a casualty of the Three Gorges dam project. Later on, a world-weary nurse (played with deceptive steeliness by Zhao Tao, Jia’s leading lady of choice), also from Shanxi, is looking for her wanderlust-afflicted husband, who presumably flew the coop long ago. All the while buildings are being razed, disputes over territory and compensation rage, and occasionally, strategically placed piles of rubble rocket into the sky.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would be the point where a series of contrivances would follow, paving the way for our two star-crossed voyagers to find solace in each other’s arms. But Amelie this isn’t. Jia’s focus is dislocation—not only of the individuals forced out of their homes by the flooding, but culturally speaking as well. One of the characters apes Chow Yun Fat, down to his trademark mannerisms and boyish grin—a form of nostalgia that is both touching and jarring. At another point in the film, this same character mentions to another how “we don’t belong in this world, you and I,” a Chow-ism to be sure, but also a glancing acknowledgment of the dangerous fluidity of nationalism—the nihilistic bravado of the Hong Kong action flick transplanted to a remote village in mainland China. Music is another form of displacement—cell phone rings are set to creaky, outdated political anthems while only the spontaneous act of karaoke allows bottled-up emotions to flow freely.
Jia oftentimes uses setting as an ironic construct—the laughably garish theme park of The World; the dilapidated nightclubs in Unknown Pleasures—but in Still Life, there’s no avoiding the albatross that is the Three Gorges. Still Life is breathtakingly shot in HD, but even the liberal use of wide angles and long takes feels constricted—apparently, state-of-the-art technology is no match for a landscape effused with such cultural, historical, and mythological significance as the Three Gorges.
Still, if you’re looking for a simple case of damning the dam, grind your axes elsewhere. Jia’s beast of burden is the individual who keeps on keeping on. This is where we believe Still Life’s emotional impact falters a bit; the tedium of day-to-day living hardly requires tedious visual metaphors to cue us in. And while the secondary characters leave an indelible mark—the boy with a serious jonesing for high notes that he can’t quite hit; the Chow impersonator—our leads, and Jia himself, spend too much time affecting meaningful despondency. Nevertheless, no living filmmaker illustrates the gulf between China’s new world order and its too-soon-forgotten cultural reserves with as much aplomb, accuracy, and sensitivity. If stillness were personified, be certain that his name would be Jia Zhangke.
Photo from ent.sina.com.cn.