“Still Life”, the latest film from Sixth Generation Chinese director Jia Zhangke, caused a stir in 2006 as a last minute entry to the Venice International Film Festival, and surprised many critics by winning the coveted Golden Lion award. In hindsight, it’s perhaps not too difficult to see why the film might have appealed so much to the jury, who in recent years have been bombarded with shoddy big budget Chinese period epics like “The Promise” and “The Banquet”. In comparison, Jia’s film is an unashamedly art-house affair, complete with beautiful cinematography, a cast made up largely of non-professionals, a topical contemporary subject, and a meandering, obscure plot which though determinedly grounded in everyday life has a few touches of jaw-dropping weirdness thrown in for good measure. Of course, such things are very much par for the course with the director, though “Still Life” is probably his most accessible outing to date, mainly due to the fact that it actually does have a coherent narrative of sorts unlike most of his previous works.
The film follows two basic stories, the first concerning Han Sanming (played by an actor with the same name), a miner who returns to the small town of Fengjie in the Three Gorges area to look for his ex-wife and daughter, only to find that during his sixteen year absence the place has been flooded. At the same time a nurse called Shen Hong (Zhao Tao, in many of the director’s previous films), also arrives looking for her own husband, who has been working on the dam project and who she seems to suspect of having an affair. As she chases around after the elusive spouse, Han Sanming decides to stay on in the remains of the town as a demolitions worker, and their two stories reveal the ways in which the government project has affected the lives of the local people.
As might be anticipated, “Still Life” is a film which meanders throughout, and is driven by observations and anecdotes rather than a traditional narrative. The two main strands of the plot tend to drift along, and although they compliment each other, never really converge as such. To be fair, these are not really criticisms, since Jia seems to be aiming to paint a picture and to provide a thoughtful rumination on an important event in modern China rather than telling a story.
Indeed, the film frequently has a documentary feel to it, moving very slowly, with plenty of long camera shots which seem equally intent in capturing what is happening in the background as the foreground action. Jia shows a great attention to detail, with people shown going about their everyday lives and given almost as much focus as the main characters. The protagonists themselves are never really fleshed out, with their motivations and much of the plot itself being left up to the interpretation of the viewer, with very little ever being explicitly explained or resolved. Again, given the nature of the film, this never frustrates, and adds to the impression that what Jia is trying to create is a piece of cinematic poetry.
The film certainly looks great, and Jia composes some very beautiful shots both of the surrounding countryside and the dilapidated town. There is a definite melancholy air hanging over the proceedings, tinged with nostalgia, with plenty of relics from the past being included and mist clouding the horizon. This quite nicely fits in with the minimalism of the narrative and furthers the dreamlike impression of the film, almost as if it were a half forgotten memory.
All such lofty aims and talk of lyricism aside, it’s worth noting that “Still Life” features a couple of moments which are quite frankly insane and which stand out against the rest of its patient naturalism. Without wishing to give too much away, these scenes, which are included for no discernable reason save the most abstract of symbolism are utterly mystifying, though they do serve to provide a few laughs and to liven things up.
Actually, the film does contain its fair share of laughs, for example through a strange character who is obsessed with Chow Yun Fat, and who attempts to imitate “A Better Tomorrow” on several occasions to amusing effect. (Jia does have a clip from the film showing in the background at one point, and on another occasion has the theme song from Chow’s famous television series “The Bund” playing.) These add a nice sense of playfulness to the film and help to lift things from ever becoming too pretentious.
Needless to say, “Still Life” is quite obviously a film which still requires a certain amount of patience from viewers, though it is also one which is surprisingly entertaining as well as providing the expected quotient of intellectual musing and gorgeous visuals.
Zhang Ke Jia (director) / Zhang Ke Jia (screenplay)
CAST: Sanming Han …. Han Sanming
Hong Wei Wang