Still Life

Still Life (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 05/11/08 at the Roxie Film Center, SF, CA

A few months back, I’d read about Still Life in the New York Times or something and became quite interested in the work of filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia, one of a group of Chinese filmmakers referred to at the “Sixth Generation”.  A month of two ago I rented his earlier film, Unknown Pleasures (2002), which I liked and which continued to resonate for me since watching it.  His films seem like a more naturalistic view inside a part of China (cultural strata and location) much different from anything I’d seen before.  His characters are isolated amidst great change, culturally and physically, within the world’s largest country, the world of the small individual situated within the enormous world of dramatic change.  Isolation and a sense of loss pervade his films.

The other truly fascinating thing about Still Life is the settings and the location of the film.  The backdrop is the ancient cities and villages among the Three Gorges that are being evacuated and demolished as they are to be flooded in the process of damming the Yangtze River in the massive Three Gorges Dam project.  Perhaps one of the most enormous projects of its kind from an industrial, physical human change to the landscape, ecological, and human in the displacement of millions of people, this is truly the “massive” background against which Zhang Ke Jia’s characters are centered.

I first drew interest to this change, though it has been going on for years, when I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).  Burtynsky’s work focuses on the human hand in reshaping the world, landscapes that are oppositional often to the natural, oppositional to an extreme.  In that film, Burtynsky and Baichwal had great difficulty in getting access to photograph or film in the project as the Chinese government is very protective of the project from getting bad publicity or bad analysis in the world’s eye.  It’s what makes Zhang Ke Jia’s film so fascinating.   The landscapes, the soon to be submerged city in which people are still living and working, is a sight to see.

The story follows Han Sanming, a man from another village, who comes to find his long lost wife of 16 years in a town already underwater.  He takes up a job with a sledgehammer, felling the buildings that will soon be below water.  Even the building in which he takes up residence eventually is marked for destruction.  The world is the center of destruction, living on the fringe of a world that will soon be swallowed up by “progress”.  Some of these villages and towns are over 2000 years old, and the culture of the people is beautifully captured by Zhang Ke Jia’s camera.

While his films rely on a form of neo-realism, focusing on a strata of culture that is perhaps not the lowest on the ladder, but near bottom, he uses non-actors to gain a style of performance that gives the film a tone unlike other films.  One, especially myself, who has never been to China, nor these specific locations, can only speculate to the accuracty of these depictions, to their naturalism.  But at face value, that is how I read it.  Neo-realistic depiction, whose power, when handled well, speaks of a truth and a naturalism, one of belief.

But interestingly, Zhang Ke Jia uses some CGI for a couple of moments of fantasy: a UFO siting, a structure that blasts off like a rocket, a man tight-rope walking between to towers.  These flights of fantasy, I think, are meant to reflect the characters’ mentality to an extent.  The outre-ness of their world, perhaps of hope, and escape.  But they seem to detract from the film’s naturalism distinctly.  I don’t know if he’s used such techniques in other films, but it did sort of disconcert me to an extent.  I still don’t know exactly what to make of them, but they add to the question of belief in the naturalism of the film.

Other shots and sequences are striking.  As Sanming passes these derelict buildings, he turns to see an entire wall felled.  This seems like a beautifully timed shot.  But later when an entire structure is detonated in the backgroud, I wondered whether or not that was also CGI.  Some of his lingering shots of people sitting together are the most striking and beautiful, but his contrasts of these individuals against the massiveness of the river, of the bridges, of the gorges themselves, the iconic quality of this whole thing is still very powerful.

I am eager to see more of his films.

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