Jia Zhang-ke has an uncanny knack for grounding his portraits of Chinese alienation in settings that are at once schematically allegorical and tangibly lived-in. The town of Fengjie is both backdrop and main character of the Venice Film Festival winner Still Life: Gradually vanishing under rising water levels as a result of the nation's mammoth Three Gorges Dam project, it is a transitory landscape that beautifully evokes the existential malaise—the helpless feeling of spiritual drowning—that so many of Jia's characters find themselves locked in. The film's stunning opening shot, a capricious lateral sprawl aboard a ferry slogging down the Yangtze River, challenges the English title's suggestion of painterly gentility. Despite Jia's superb compositional skills and the characters' stalled lives, this is less a film of static poses than one of mysterious movements, aware of the impermanence of connections and the ruthless push of time.
In contrast to the entrapping surroundings of Jia's previous works (the village-proscenium in Platform, the amusement center in The World), the film's increasingly submerged city is not an environment from which people cannot escape, but one that is, along with all its heritage, slowly slipping through their fingers. Largely ravaged by floods, it's a wasteland of dilapidated edifices and people continually on the move; indeed, the narrative hinges on a pair of dislocated outsiders, mineworker Sanming (Han Sanming), and nurse Shen Hong (Zhao Tao). Sanming is tracking down the wife and daughter who left him 16 years ago, while Shen seeks the husband whom she hasn't heard from in two years. Although the two never meet over the course of the film, they are fortuitously coupled in drifting limbo, with their parallel searches hinting at unfinished links to the past that must be resolved before they can move on with their lives.
While the ersatz international monuments of The World were at times too handy an illustration of Jia's concept of insular disconnection, Still Life's inundated Fengjie is more of an organic crossroads. Capturing the real-life toll that an industrial project is taking on the city, the film certainly has added documentary value (in fact, the project originally stemmed from Dong, a documentary Jia made on the region as seen through a painter's eyes), yet the filmmaker has never been afraid to tweak his own naturalism with artifice. Subheadings like "Cigarettes," "Liquor," and "Tea" materialize without quite dividing the film into segments, while an image will be carefully composed only for a rogue element to throw off its symmetry (as in a very funny shot of a row of shirtless workers eating noodles, one of whom has a bloodied bandage on his head). Robbed of its former vitality, the landscape comes to resemble sci-fi scenery: Hazmat-suited workers spray the rubble while a demolition crew toils nearby, and in a whimsical gag to be savored by anybody familiar with Antonioni, an architectural monstrosity inexplicably skyrockets out of the frame and out into space.
"Don't stir up the past," Sanming's brother-in-law tells him, yet for Jia, the past—personal as well as collective—must be confronted if progress is to be made. Characters in Still Life cling to mementos (a cigarette box, an old song turned into a ringtone), a crooner performs a number about lost youth with hip-hop accompaniment. Pop-culture references may still be the main point of departure for several of the characters, but there's now a positive element to Jia's view: Compare the teenagers' mimicry of a Tarantino bit in Unknown Pleasures with Sanming's bonding with a fellow worker (Wang Hong Wei) over a Chow Yun-Fat impression and it becomes clear how a movie quote can bring people together just as much as it can distance them from reality. For all its palpable nostalgia, the film's attitude toward the past is far from simple, as evidenced in the contrasting reunions of its two estranged couples. If Sanming hopes to rekindle his relationship with his wife, Shen wants nothing more than a divorce from her husband so she can start anew. This emotional mobility points to a new direction for Jia, a hopeful feeling of choice for characters who persevere even as their worlds inexorably sink away.