Let’s start with an image: a middle-aged man and woman huddled in intimate proximity in the corner of a room. In the middle of the screen is a gaping hole, a wall ripped out of a condemned building, revealing a cityscape so static, it could only be a matte painting. But then, as the couple quietly converse, the tallest building suddenly collapses, startling the characters and upsetting the audience’s expectation of a still composition. The demolition is part of a project to destroy the city of Fengjie, China in order to build the world’s largest hydro-electric power station, the Three Gorges Dam, a project that has displaced two million people from their homes. As the couple, reuniting after sixteen years, attempt to address their personal history, they are interrupted by the forces of official history; this complex interplay of the personal and the political not only provides director Jia Zhang-ke with one of his most evocative images, it allows him to provide exact visual expression to the paradoxical forces that define life in modern China, a subject which forms the central line of inquiry in his small, but increasingly impressive body of work.
If Jia’s four previous features trace the trajectory of a rapidly modernizing China by focusing on a group of young men and women who either bear direct witness to change (Platform) or who have already absorbed it (The World), then this latest feature, Still Life, offers an entirely different perspective by directly transplanting its unwitting central figure from the margins of history to its turbulent center. When middle-aged Han Sanming returns to Fengjie after sixteen years, he has become so disconnected from what is generally considered “modern” life that he has never even heard of the Dam project and is surprised to find his former neighborhood completely submerged. “Don’t you watch TV?” an incredulous cabbie asks after pointing out the small clump of grass which is all that remains of his former street. But, despite his cellphone—complete with custom ringtone—Sanming is a man completely uncomfortable with modernity, a man who readily accepts the moniker of “nostalgist” and yet, as a poor laborer, has no choice but to assist in the destruction of the past that represents the only conception of China he is able to recognize.
Since Sanming’s reason for returning to Fengjie is to locate his ex-wife and child or, as one character puts it, to “dig up the past”, and since the city represents a nexus of historical change in a country intent on obliterating its own history, his search is initially greeted with hostility, even earning him a kick from an angry demolition worker. Even when Sanming’s “digging” is given literal expression—a team of archaeological workers scours the ground for ancient artifacts—it is only to reduce the past to fetish object and not to acknowledge it as any sort of living presence. In order to support himself during his time in Fengjie, Sanming takes a job on the demolition crew, aiding in the process that has dispossessed millions and forced his ex-wife and daughter to leave town. By implicating even the most culturally isolated of individuals in the modernization process, Jia suggests a collective responsibility for the historical amnesia of the contemporary China project. Subject to forces utterly foreign to his comprehension, Sanming is nevertheless forced to participate in remaking his country into a new and unrecognizable configuration at the risk of complete dispossession and, given the physical danger of the project, potential death.
One of Jia’s great strengths as filmmaker is his ability to conjure up an exact sense of place. From the sharply drawn small towns of Northern China in his first features to the Beijing amusement park of The World, Jia’s settings always represent the vivid center of his films against which the characters are (correctly) conceived as secondary figures who, despite their several unique qualities, must be regarded as subservient to environment and history. It is as if Jia’s settings embody the very historical determinants that overtake the individuality of the characters. In Still Life, his figures interact against one of his most evocative landscapes. A world of infinite rubble, half-demolished buildings and a gray-blue river splitting the city in two, the presentation is enhanced by the introduction of a series of incongruous elements: a boat of Western tourists taking photographs, a crew of safety-suited demolition workers traversing the ruins like astronauts inspecting an alien terrain, a tightrope walker hovering between two abandoned buildings. It is above all, though, a world of perpetual gray, with the ashy ruins coloring the entire landscape, so that when a visitor to the city notes the shade of the sky, a local shrugs off the comment; “it always looks like that,” she says. A superficially monotonal cityscape, captured in subtle gradations of color by Jia and cinematographer Yu Lik-wai on HD video, the director’s Fengjie proves to be as rich an environment as the more vibrant settings of his previous films, if one ultimately less reflective of any redemptive possibilities.
If there’s one segment of Still Life that’s of a more qualified excellence, it’s the lengthy middle section which introduces a parallel story of a woman visiting the city in search of her lost husband. Although the sequence contains some of Jia’s happiest visual inventions (stunning nighttime photography of a bridge being lit, for one), the segment relies too heavily on just those elements that are foreign to the director’s art: traditional notions of narrative/character exposition. If Sanming’s quest ultimately depends on a conventional narrative development, it is at least diffuse enough to make the chronological concerns secondary to an investigation of the character’s interaction with both Fengjie’s landscapes and his nation’s history. In the more compressed middle section, Jia gives us a mini-narrative whose elements all resolve in a narrow time frame and whose conclusion is meant to have an emotional resonance tied to the viewer’s stake in the character’s situation. Since Jia’s conception of character is antithetical to the demands of the present scenario and since the woman is sketched with the director’s typical opacity, the middle section must, despite its occasional moments of insight, be termed at least a partial failure. It’s worth noting that it is not Jia’s conception of character that’s at fault, but his decision to concoct a narrative-centric sequence ill-suited to this conception.
Either way, it comes as quite a relief to return to Sanming’s story for the film’s final act, an act which goes a long way towards effacing the slight misstep of the central segment and which, in its two final images (a long right-to-left pan across the faces of the demolition workers and the miraculous appearance of a tight-rope walker) reminds us of the masterful cinematic understanding of its young director, as he finds the exact imagery to evoke the paradoxes of contemporary life. If China and, by extension, the entire globe is making itself over so rapidly that we have no time to find our bearings, then at least we have the consolation of a deeply committed artist to guide us through this alien world.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.