On the Edge
Still Life Captures A China Hurtling Toward The Future With One Foot In The Past
If Jia Zhang Ke didn't exist, Western critics would have to invent him. He emerged on the festival circuit just as former bad boy Zhang Yimou was taking on the mantle of mainland China's official filmmaker. Most explicitly in 2004's The World (Shijie), he's accepted the role of globalization's bard. Foremost among his talents is an amazing knack for finding ready-made metaphors for China's modernization. The World was set in a Beijing theme park akin to Epcot, containing miniature visions of world attractions like Egypt's pyramids. Still Life takes place in Fengjie, a city flooded to make way for the massive Three Gorges dam. The World offered a grim tale of worker exploitation and suggested that the progress offered by technology and urbanization is partial at best and a complete fraud at worst. Still Life, now being released on DVD with the companion documentary Dong after a cursory theatrical run earlier this year, is far more allusive and elliptical; it pushes politics further to the background, but in this context, the background often seems livelier and more important than the foreground.
Still Life contains elements of a documentary, depicting the real destruction of much of Fengjie. The city's 2,000-year-old "old town" neighborhood has been flooded, but its replacement hasn't yet been fully constructed. The movie opens with a slow tracking shot of passengers on a ferry. One of them is Sanming (Han Sanming), a middle-aged coal miner traveling to Fengjie in search of his ex-wife Missy. Discovering that her old home is now underwater, he decides to stick around the city and gets a job on a demolition crew. Abruptly, the movie switches focus to another person looking for their spouse: Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse who hasn't seen her husband in two years and needs to tell him that she wants a divorce.
With Still Life, Jia makes some of the most expressive use of high-definition video I've ever seen. He knows that it's a medium with its own special characteristics and doesn't try to make it look like film. In fact, when Still Life premiered in the fall of 2006, he claimed that he wanted it shown only on projected video, although practical concerns led him to abandon that notion. The movie revels in bleached-out bone-white textures--it's full of dingy concrete--and slightly distorted colors. In fact, Yu Lik-Wai's cinematography recalls the degraded look of color Xeroxes. Still Life is filled with natural beauty, but it doesn't simply make Chinese landscapes look pretty. For every image of misty splendor, there's at least one of industrial ugliness. Often, both share the frame. As critic Shelly Kraicer described it, it's "an anti-still life that monumentalizes destruction, giving it an awful, sublime grandeur." Despite its focus on two people on a quest, Still Life has a pleasant sense of narrative drift. Much of the time, it's content simply to watch its characters hang out.
Stylistically, Still Life is unusual in one other respect. It treats the city of Fengjie as if it were another character. Most exteriors show something going on both in the front and back of the frame. The sound design, filled with the noises of construction and destruction, contributes to the sense that we're watching a partial view of a world that spills out beyond the screen. Several times, startling events suddenly occur in the background. As Shen Hong hangs up laundry, a UFO takes off. During a conversation, a building collapses. Jia is interested in the way physical environments mirror and affect his characters' psyches. In this respect, Still Life is a successor to the late Michelangelo Antonioni's '60s movies. Like all of Jia's work, it suggests that China may as well have an "under construction" sign covering the entire country and concentrates on the people left behind, rather than yuppies benefiting from capitalism's rise. Even so, it's initially most impressive as a directorial tour-de-force; its deeper meanings emerge later.
Jia's vision of China is paradoxical. While the government and industry salute progress, his individual characters are nostalgic. Still Life juxtaposes two versions of China: one geared toward the future and threatening to obliterate memory, the other with its eye on the past. It's not too hard to figure out where the director's sympathies lie, but the movie has a light touch far removed from the miserabilism that permeated The World. Jia's ability to tap into the Chinese zeitgeist is as impressive as his eye for the possibilities of video.