Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Undercurrents, and then some: Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life

Hong Shen and Sanming Han, the central characters in Jia Zhang-ke’s Golden Lion-winning film Still Life, never meet. Rather, they navigate kindred routes through drowning places, each in search of an errant spouse, each bearing witness to a world in the process of a systematic vanishing. Jia, whose previous films include Platform and Unknown Pleasures, has developed a directorial perspective that, while often constructed around potent, beautiful images, is very specifically concerned with the evocation of the unseen. With Still Life, which functions in part as a documentary about the flooding of villages and the displacement of over 1,500,000 people resulting from China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam Project, the unseen takes on a new level of resonance: the lost world that once lined the Yangtze River is in a sense still there, located somewhere in Jia’s frame. It’s just that it’s underwater.

Shen, a former miner, attempts to find the bought wife who left him 16 years ago with their unborn child. Upon his arrival in Fengjie he hires a mercenary motorcyclist to take him to his wife’s address, yet all that’s left of her street is a small, grassy knoll nosing up through the water’s surface. Shen manages to track down his brother-in-law, who explains that his wife has gone down-river to find work but will eventually return. Shen procures local work and opts to wait. The main industry in the region is, unsurprisingly, demolition. Walls and buildings tumble down all around him as Shen walks from one place to another. Even the place where he’s managed to find cheap accommodation gets tagged by government officials with the dreaded line of spray paint that indicates where the water will reach next.

The performance style in Still Life, as with other Jia films, tends toward the placid, yet one of the film’s more lively exchanges finds Shen talking to a charismatic young coworker who, hearing of Shen’s search, waxes philosophical about how Shen is a nostalgic man living in very un-nostalgic times. But is he? The Three Gorges Dam Project is arguably nurturing an epidemic of nostalgia, uprooting so many families from their homes and driving them to parts unknown. Jia, too cultivates an atmosphere of melancholy through striking images of lone individuals gazing out at crumbling vistas, or through his always beguiling and surprising push-ins on endearing figures, like in the scene where a little kid in underwear enters Shen’s room, steals one of his cigarettes and lights up.

Sanming doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into Still Life, but the timing of her entrance is shrewd: a more assertive character than Shen, she raises the level of urgency in the film with her presence, coming to Fengjie not to reunite with her husband but to demand a divorce. Ultimately she and Shen function jointly as a sort of Janus-head in the scheme of Jia’s examination, two modern Chinese landing in a 2000-year-old community condemned to death in the name of industry, poised on the precipice of cataclysmic social change, one face looking back, the other forward, both momentarily transfixed with destruction. And Still Life, Jia’s poetic entry into the cinema of ecological alienation, will transfix you, too.

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