Toward the end of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, word spread that a print of that year’s winner of the Golden Lion—the top prize of the 63rd Venice Film Festival—was jetting across the Atlantic for a North American “sneak preview.” Journalists queued up two or more hours before the coveted screening. Alas, the theatre filled up before I arrived, so I waited a long year-and-a-half before Still Life highlighted this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. It was worth the wait. This strikingly shot, deeply humane drama, set in a town partly flooded because of the Three Gorges Dam project, chronicles the overlapping journeys of a man searching for his ex-wife and a woman seeking her two-year absent husband from whom she wants a divorce. Sadly, although a fine example of contemplative cinema, Still Life ’s box office will suffer from American audiences’ inclination toward faster-paced films with a more defined narrative.
This unique hybrid of nonfiction and fiction observes the cataclysmic affect on Fengjie, an old town with a 2,000-year history, and its countless families who have lived there for many generations. Now condemned, and its population scattered, Fengjie hovers in a limbo state—a citywide still life packed with poetic sorrow. Sanming (Han Sanming), a coal miner, hopes to reunite with his ex-wife, Missy, and daughter, while Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a young nurse, hopes to divorce her wandering husband, Guo Bin. Nothing much happens in Still Life, its atmosphere is everything. The characters, like the half-flooded town itself, linger between the past and an unknown future. They, like characters in an Antonioni empty urban landscape, seem almost secondary to an indifferent environment (and government).
Director Jia Zhang-ke, a leading figure of the Sixth Generation of filmmakers in the People’s Republic of China and considered one of the world’s great contemporary filmmakers, shot Still Life in digital video and endows it with the richness of a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro. And there are moments of subtle surrealism, which add a sense of irony, humor and lightness to a story, the subtext of which is China’s often ruthless shift from state-controlled communism to corrupt capitalism. A rapid, erratic-moving cloud, mysteriously illuminated, evokes the possibility of an unidentified flying object. In another scene, Shen Hong and a male friend of her husband’s stand in an empty room, in front of an empty window frame, commiserating about her philandering husband. They are oblivious to an oddly-shaped, condemned building in the background that lifts slowly off its foundation like a space-shuttle sky-rocketing up to the heavens. The film closes with a mid-range shot of Han Sanming silently and solitarily questioning his future as the minute figure of a tightrope walker in the distance floats near his head.
Still Life and Yung Chang’s exceptional Up the Yangtze (read our review here ), serve as the respective dramatic narrative and documentary bookends for expressions on the human costs of the Three Gorges Dam project. Because of their visual distinction and shear gorgeousness, both Life and Yangtze should be seen on theatre screens, but the second-best viewing option (after the DVD releases): watch them back-to-back on the largest TV screen you can find. Both films serve as empathetic guides to today’s Chinese people and the country’s governmental policies.
Cast: Han Sanming, Zhao Tao, Li Zhu Bing, Wang Hongwei, Ma Lizhen and Lan Zhou
Director : Jia Zhang-ke
Screenwriters: Jia Zhang-ke, Sun Jianmin and Guan Na
Producers: Chow Keung, Dan Bo and Ren Zhonglun
Running time: 108 min.
Release date : October 3 LA