FILM STILL LIFE DIRECTOR JIA ZHANG KE

Cigarettes, Liquor, Tea, Toffee

Last week saw the B.F.I. D.V.D. release of Still Life, Jia Zhangke’s contemplative, heartfelt tribute to the ancient town of Fengjie, situated in the Three Gorges region of the Yangtze River. Set before the completion of the Chinese government’s hydroelectric dam project, a colossal initiative which began in earnest back in the forties but which Chinese Premier Li Peng finally set into motion in the early nineties, the film concentrates on the efforts of two quiet souls who return to Fengjie in search of their respective spouses and end up picking through rubble as the town is, rather extraordinarily, razed and re-formed around them. It doesn’t sound like much, and indeed what we eventually learn about the two principals’ lives amounts to very little, and yet I was reminded throughout of how much information there is here, just one aspect of contemporary Chinese society: from the rise of material consumption in the global cities and the clear differences between the classes which capitalism throws into such stark relief, to the erosion of cultural heritage as it is linked to this idea of progress; from the internal migrants that inundate the Three Gorges Hydro Project looking for menial work to the no-holds-barred demolition orders which force whole communities, including disadvantaged elders, to relocate. The film concerns these sociopolitical issues but it is Jia’s treatment also of the ongoing emotional and philosophical changes of his lead characters (however much they try to repress those feelings and appear inscrutable) that makes the film truly stand out for me.

The film suggests that the turmoil caused by big government and big corporations is necessary to bear and that traditional kinship helps ordinary citizens to overcome; however, I think more than promoting a loosely defined party political message, the film shows that progress (as an economic pursuit and a national project) damages its citizens, their cultural traditions and their practices


Still Life marked something of a departure for Jia. The film was co-produced by the state’s Shanghai Film Studio (until this point the company was a minority backer on one of Jia’s previous movies) and shot entirely on high definition digital video. This gave Jia some basic freedoms whilst shooting under the thumb of the government Film Bureau (which ultimately approves the film) but it also influenced Jia over the course of production, altering his stylistic approach. Still Life combines close-ups and mediums with confidence, pulling focus literally as well as metaphorically on a range of personal issues affecting the characters—issues linked inextricably to a sense of passing time and of loss. This in contrast to his previous film The World (Shijie, 2004, China/Japan/France) which combined wide-angle long-take shots with expansive panoramic views of the Beijing World Park landscape, all for good reason.

The B.F.I. produced a booklet to accompany the D.V.D. and in it Jia Zhangke says: “if destiny has been written then what matters most is the trajectory, the pathways”. This reminds me of one remarkable moment at the beginning of the film when Sanming (Han Sanming), a Shanxi migrant, arrives at Fengjie on a motorbike only to discover that his ex-wife’s neighbourhood, a space that became his own home, is entirely submerged in the Yangtze. The reveal is matter-of-fact, its effect on the viewer rather more punishing. How we position ourselves as spectators in this regard has something to do with its impact; viewed sympathetically, the effect is like losing a fabulous and irreplaceable lover, and then years down the line realising that the cherished memories of her are gone: this is not our fault because our lives must continue, but in the process we lose a part of our identity, the few roots which secured us firmly to the ground for a while now appear far below us, abandoned or given up on. One thing is clear however, the pathway vanishes the more we travel; it’s little wonder then that we should place faith in this idea that “destiny has been written”—we’d like to feel that someone out there is watching and making sense of our own drama.
The act of spectatorship is also disturbed by a growing sense of political instruction here—Still Life is a tale about Chinese society rising up and transforming into something stronger and progressive, a power state on a global scale. Evidently, this is one influence of state-sponsored backing. The film suggests that the turmoil caused by big government and big corporations is necessary to bear and that traditional kinship can and will help ordinary citizens overcome; however, I think more than promoting any loosely defined party political message the film shows with some regret and heavy feeling that progress (as an economic pursuit, a national project) damages its citizens, their cultural traditions and practices.

If there is a problem with Still Life I think it is reflected in Jia’s statement that he is “not invent(ing) anything, I simply am there, capturing that moment”. More often than not Jia works to capture moments and cover the signs of his staging—the computer generated backdrop to the film’s iconic image in a derelict building is a good case in point
As such, Jia’s film is an intelligent, sensitive and often sombre affair, but thankfully also a likeable one. Jia straddles the divide between social-realist drama and political statement with a surreal humour that I’m sure loses something in translation for international audiences, but is nevertheless meaningful: in one scene a stone monument, appearing to respond to the conversation between characters, shoots up into the sky (the monument is based on the Chinese written character “Hua” which can mean both China and flowering); in another scene, a flying saucer materialises in the distance as the character Shen Hong (Tao Zhao) regards the river. These and other science-fiction reference points are deliberately mystifying. If there is a problem with Still Life, therefore, I think it is reflected well in Jia’s statement that he is “not invent(ing) anything, I simply am there, capturing that moment”. More often than not Jia works to capture moments and cover the signs of his staging—the computer generated backdrop to the film’s iconic image (in which Sanming and his ex-wife are crouched together in a derelict building) provides a good case in point. But this aside, once the dust is settled and the sounds of twisting metal have cleared there comes the realisation that we have just witnessed something special.
5 September, 2008


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