Still waters run deep

Still Life

on December 17, 2007 by John P. McCarthy

Two powerful currents run through Jia Zhang-Ke’s Still Life, winner of the Golden Lion prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. The first maps changes wrought by the massive Three Gorges Dam project—both on the terrain alongside China’s Yangtze River and on the lives of the one million citizens who will be displaced when it’s finally completed. The movie was filmed in the city of Fengjie while sections were being dismantled in anticipation of being submerged under the 400-mile lake slowly rising behind the dam; many lower-lying neighborhoods had already disappeared. Second, the film serves as a tribute to the people’s capacity to adapt and thrive, and the melancholy tone of the first function, documenting a past being swallowed in the name of progress, merges with optimism about a vital present and future.

From the opening panning shot of passengers crammed onto a boat, the hypnotic hum of the river activity never goes away completely, just as the hot, sticky climate is palpable throughout. A miner (Han Sanming) arrives from the Shanxi province in search of his ex-wife and daughter, whom he hasn’t seen for 16 years. Learning that his ex-wife’s old street is gone and that she’s working downriver, he decides to wait for her return and gets a job demolishing vacant buildings by hand. A nurse (Zhao Tao) has also arrived and is looking for her husband, who hasn’t come home in two years. Their respective searches—one of which ends happily, the other sadly—are conducted against a backdrop that’s alternately an eerie, static wasteland and a bustling hive in which some profit from the changes and others merely scrape by.

Along with its hazards and turmoil, Zhang-Ke reveals the environment’s haunting beauty by using striking photographic compositions and injecting a few surreal occurrences. Still Life is a portrait of a region in flux and carries a simple message: The waters wash many things away but also raise many up. The challenges of navigating this swirl are represented by a surprising image at movie’s end: A tightrope walker is seen suspended mid-air, carefully making his way between two abandoned buildings, structures that soon will be torn down and engulfed, in the hope others can stay dry and remain standing.

Distributor: New Yorker
Cast: Han Sanming and Zhao Tao
Director/Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Producers: Xu Pengle, Wang Tianyun and Zhu Jiong
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 108 min.
Release date: January 18, 2007 NY

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