August 8, 2007 saw a huge celebration in Beijing marking the one-year countdown to the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The accompanying mass rally in Tiananmen Square, with its climax of fireworks and pop singer performances, is the modern face of a transformed China that its Communist-in-name-only government wants to project to the world. Somehow I can’t imagine Jia Zhang-ke paying much attention to these antics — just think back to his Unknown Pleasures (2002), where we see his two loser heroes Bin Bin (Zhao Weiwei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) profoundly indifferent to the noisy celebrations over the awarding of the Games to Beijing. Jia’s films are as far from celebrations of contemporary China’s modernisation as it is possible to be — his concerns are with those Chinese forced to the margins or left behind by his nation’s social and economic changes. It was a point made perhaps rather too obviously in The World (2005), where the protagonists are limited to an imitation theme-park world, an inauthentic simulacrum of the icons of the globalised world that they can never gain access to.
Still Life (2006) marks a substantial advance on The World. This is not only in the way Jia has deepened his themes and characterisations — once again, his concerns are with individuals whose lives are disrupted and displaced by ongoing societal changes, but for the first time his central characters are older, more mature. They’re people whose pasts have a direct bearing on their actions in the present, unlike in the earlier films where the characters are almost blank slates come into being as the film commences, focused on the here and now, with no reference to a past before the start of the story. Also, Still Life‘s two protagonists, Sanming (Han Sanming) and Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), are better survivors, more tenacious, and their fates have none of the sense of failure, of coming to a dead end, that marks Jia’s other films. Yet the success of Still Life rests not only on the fruitful variations Jia has brought to his customary themes and characters, but, equally and as importantly, on the tremendous mastery of form evident throughout the film. Working with his constant cinematographer Yu Lik-wai in high-definition digital video, Jia has made a film that is as beautiful and as deeply felt as any you are likely to see nowadays, the work of one of the foremost directors working anywhere in the world today.
The inspiration for Still Life lies in documentary — first, a documentary directed by Li Yifan and Yan Yu, Before the Flood (2005), which Jia saw as president of the jury of the Cinéma du Réel documentary festival in March 2005; then Jia’s own documentary Dong (2006). Before the Flood is a Direct Cinema-style observational film of the inhabitants of the city of Fengjie (the setting for Still Life) as they dismantle their lives physically and emotionally before their homes are flooded in the Three Gorges Dam project. This is, of course, modern China’s major development project: the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, twelve years in construction (1994-2006) and due to start power generation in 2009. But the project also entails massive flooding, including inundation of the famous Three Gorges (a tourist site with strong cultural associations for the Chinese), and the resettlement of up to 1.9 million people.
A lot of Before the Flood‘s concerns seem to have fed into Still Life. There’s the general sympathy for the plight of ordinary people whose homes, livelihoods, and networks of relationships are being eradicated. In addition, Before the Flood‘s frequent scenes depicting the indifference of government officials and Communist Party cadres to the sufferings of the general public affected by the dam project have been replicated by Jia in Still Life in two carefully balanced scenes, each witnessed by one of the film’s main protagonists: Sanming in the Relocation Office, Shen Hong in a shut-down state factory. (There’s also a striking related scene where a government official orders the lights of a new bridge turned on for the benefit of his guests.)
Dong is the film that Jia started shooting when he first went to Fengjie. It’s a portrayal of his friend, the artist Liu Xiaodong, and how he works on large-scale paintings of male demolition workers in Fengjie and then of female bar workers in Bangkok. (The “Dong” of the title, more than drawing significance from its meaning of “East,” references one of the characters in Liu’s personal name.) Jia went to Fengjie in September 2005 on Liu’s invitation and it seems right to assume that he was specifically interested in going there from his knowledge of Li and Yan’s documentary. A week after starting on Dong, Jia decided to make Still Life, from then on shooting the two films in parallel. In fact, the films share some of the same footage, including non professional actor Han Sanming (Jia’s cousin, who has appeared in minor roles in most of the director’s previous films).
Han’s appearance in both films playing a demolition worker alongside real workers raises some interesting questions about the “documentary” nature of Dong. It seems to share here the aesthetics of Jia’s fiction filmmaking, where questions of form — the composition of the image, the placement and movement or lack of movement of the camera, shot length — have as important a role as a film’s content, and the way that content reflects a social reality. This slippage between documentary and artifice inDong is interesting, but the film itself is a minor work of limited appeal. One of its problems is that although Jia feels a generational and artistic affinity with Liu, Liu’s painting style — the focus of Dong — is of the most banal representational realism, far away from the challenges of Jia’s aesthetics. Moreover, the second half of Dong is very weak, with the scenes in Bangkok, in striking contrast to those in Fengjie, appearing touristic and inauthentic.
Irrespective of the limitations of Dong, Jia’s achievement in its companion piece Still Life is quite stunning; and it is based on two very simple, parallel storylines. They’re also Jia’s means of personally investing himself in the Fengjie setting, of relating himself as an outsider to the local people, as both of the film’s main characters come from his own home province of Shanxi — the setting of his first three films, Xiao Wu(1997); Platform (2000), his masterpiece (and one of the great films of world cinema of the last decade); and Unknown Pleasures (2002).
Both these Shanxi characters have come to Fengjie in search of their respective spouses. Sanming is a miner who bought a mail-order bride from Fengjie but allowed her to return home with their young daughter. He hasn’t seen either for sixteen years, and he’s keen on tracking down his wife in order to see his daughter. For her part, Shen Hong is a nurse who hasn’t seen her husband Guo Bin in two years — he’s abandoned his post in a state factory and is now involved in a company running the demolitions (there are intimations that small-time gangster muscle is being used to enforce them), and he’s deliberately left Shen Hong with a less-than-complete mobile phone number, to restrict the ability to contact to himself. So Shen Hong enlists the help of an old pal of Guo Bin’s, archaeologist Wang Dongming (Wang Hongwei, another Jia regular, with lead roles in Xiao Wu and Platform and minor ones elsewhere).
Two points are worth making about these storylines. One is that they are less clearly drawn than might appear from my description. Rather, their content is slowly revealed in the steady accumulation of scenes that just as much privilege other aspects of the film’s world: the backdrop of the mighty Yangtze River, scenes of demolition, Sanming’s developing relationships with the landlord of the hostel he stays at or with his fellow demolition workers, and in particular with the young hoodlum Brother Mark, who names and models himself after the Chow Yun-Fat character in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986). There’s a marvellous long take of a conversation between the two over a restaurant meal: the scene’s formalism gives it as much weight as its parallel at the end of the film when Sanming finally sits down to talk with his wife in another long single-shot scene.
The second point is a structural one, that the two storylines are successive rather than parallel. In fact, Sanming’s story is interrupted by Shen Hong’s, and it is only when Shen Hong’s story is concluded and she departs Fengjie that we return to Sanming. Although the two never meet, Jia links the two through his editing, initially through a science-fiction moment that’s something of a surprise given the strong realist surface of the film, when a flying saucer streaks across the sky. In the first shot, the camera pans left away from Sanming as he stands looking out over the river, leaving him out of frame; the camera now comes to a standstill and the flying saucer makes its appearance over the hills, shooting off-screen to the right. There’s then a cut to Shen Hong, looking screen-left against the backdrop of the river, and the pan now goes in the opposite direction, to the right as Shen Hong turns from her left-profile, following the saucer as it streaks across the sky to vanish over the hills.
These science-fiction elements — there’s another one when Shen Hong observes a strange structure literally take off like a rocket, and they’re presaged by the sci-fi tone of the scenes of the white-suited sanitation workers suddenly appearing with their spray equipment among the near-naked bodies of the demolition workers — are a device that operates similarly to the animated text messages in The World. In both cases, they break the dominant realist tone of the films and highlight the abstract qualities of Jia’s visual style, the way the forward movement of the narrative can find itself suspended in favour of an attention to the play of colour and form in the image. (Still Life‘s opening shots are a good example of this, where the narrative element is minimal and the image shifts in and out of focus.) Still, in the end I’m not convinced that there’s actually much meaning to the appearance of the UFO and the rocket, although the use of the former in linking Sanming and Shen Hong is economic, effective, and resonant.
As I’ve mentioned, Shen Hong and Sanming are, in terms of Jia’s cinema, a very different kind of character. They have nothing of the aimless, drifting quality of Jia’s earlier protagonists; instead, they are in their own measured, modest way strong and self-confident, focused, and driven by their quests for their respective spouses. Even Shen Hong, who seems at first to be the emotional victim of her situation, abandoned back in Shanxi with minimal contact from her husband, turns out to be anything but. In fact, when she and Guo Bin finally meet, we discover she’s come to track him down in order to get a divorce, and once their brief business is conducted (preluded by a charming scene of an equally brief dance together in the open air against the backdrop of the completed dam), they simply exit the scene and one another’s lives, leaving the frame in opposite directions.
Sanming’s relentless tenacity is expressed above all through his body, the way again and again we observe his squat, compact figure, dressed in white singlet and dark trousers and always carrying his small travel bag, manoeuvre his way through the rubble of the demolished city, with a constant forward movement that no obstacle can check. He is in a way a very passive figure, so much is done to him — watch how he stands quietly there while the scam artists go through his bag in the first scene of the film. But there’s an inner strength to Sanming that drives him to persevere. Nothing knocks him off course, as Jia shows in the contrasts between movement and immobility in the scene where Sanming visits his brother-in-law on the latter’s boat.
In this scene, Sanming is standing by the wheel, trying to find out the whereabouts of his wife and daughter, but Jia’s camera holds on the four men eating their noodles on the other side of the cabin, with Sanming’s questions coming off-camera. When one of his wife’s nephews lurches across the cabin to threaten him, the camera pans with him; then, when the relatives move out of frame to their side of the cabin, the camera frames Sanming alone, moving slightly as Sanming steps forward a little, to stand quiet and motionless in centre-frame as the chugging of a passing boat (that we briefly glimpse outside) fills the soundtrack. Here Sanming’s steadfastness is imbued by Jia with a certain modest nobility.
Sanming and Shen Hong are characters whose present actions in the story are connected with their past history, which distinguishes them from Jia’s earlier protagonists. The past in a general sense is also an important theme of the film, which is raised in a comic tone in the long talk in the restaurant between Sanming and Brother Mark. Mark laughs at the unfashionable cigarette brand on whose packet Sanming has written his wife’s address (which, significantly, itself is out of date); the two show off the old songs that both have used as ringtones for the cellphones; and then Mark quotes a line from A Better Tomorrow: “Present-day society doesn’t suit us because we’re too nostalgic.”
As much as this statement is ringed with irony and bracketed with distancing quotation marks, it’s still an idea that the film endorses. Those who succeed in this society are the ones who have broken their ties with the past, in the way that Guo Bin has abandoned his personal belongings in his locker at the factory and reinvented himself for the modern world. The Three Gorges Dam project is this process writ large, where the vestiges of the past are to be obliterated by China’s economic modernisation. There’s a tenderness and awe with which Jia shoots close-ups of the relics of the shutdown factory — a machine part, a glove and a padlock lying on the ground, a fan wheel, rusting cylinders — and it’s no coincidence that Guo Bin’s buddy Wang Dongming is an archaeologist, racing against time to save artifacts from the Western Han Dynasty. (There’s a deliberate aural contrast in the way the gentle scraping sounds at the archaeological dig are replaced in the next shot by the raucous sounds of demolition work.) Even in Wang’s own home we see a long line of varied clocks strung up, as if this is Wang’s desperate attempt to save from demolition the very symbols of marking time. Later, when Shen Hong departs Fengjie by boat, the guide on the boat quotes the great Tang dynasty poet Li Bai on the beauty of the Three Gorges — but this is undermined by the knowledge that this cultural past is soon to vanish under the waters of the dam. Our last view of Shen Hong is of her quiet, thoughtful face as she looks out at the river. We’re entitled to read in her look a rebuke on Jia’s part of the authorities (party leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have just been shown in documentary extracts), as can be also read in the earlier close-up of Mao’s portrait on the banknote that Sanming holds up against the background of the river.
Critics have made much of the four titles that appear in the course of the film: “Tobacco,” “Liquor,” “Tea,” “Toffee.” It’s not that these everyday items split the film into four separate thematic parts; rather, each appearance of the title will coincide with or look forward to the use of this commodity in marking the kind of relationship that exists between people or the differences that divide them.
Tobacco: In the common Chinese custom of establishing relationships, Sanming offers cigarettes to Brother Mark and to his landlord (who, amusingly, not only declines because he doesn’t smoke but can’t understand Sanming’s Shanxi accent). Later, Sanming will leave a cigarette burning in memory of the murdered Mark; and as a gesture of companionship will pass round cigarettes to farewell his fellow demolition workers.
Liquor: Sanming’s brother-in-law Old Ma refuses his offer of two bottles of his local hometown liquor, reinforcing the antagonism that exists on Old Ma’s part and the obstacles that Sanming faces. In contrast, at the end of the film Sanming will drink liquor with the old man for whom Sanming’s wife appears to be some kind of indentured servant, paying off her brother’s debt; and the sharing of liquor will be the sign of the rapport that exists between Sanming and his fellow demolition workers.
Tea: The packet of tea that Shen Hong finds in her husband’s locker works in the same way as the first appearance of “Liquor,” marking the lack of a connection between people. Significantly, the tea (one of the relics of the past abandoned by Guo Bin) will be drunk by Shen Hong sitting alone in the next scene.
Toffee: The “Toffee” title marks the point at which the film leaves Shen Hong to return to Sanming, and in this final section of the film the two people he has the closest relationships with, Brother Mark and his wife, both offer him toffees — and specifically a “Big White Rabbit Toffee,” a popular but now rather old-fashioned Chinese brand of slightly soft milk candy; the toffee marks an exchange, a connection with other people, and a shared link with the past.
Some critics have tried to read these four everyday items as an intentional consumerist/societal critique on Jia’s part. Shelly Kraicer, for example, calls them “ambiguous symbols of consumption and enjoyment . . . pleasures, even addictions”; and Acquarello talks of how these “consumerist-themed chapters” illustrate “the social repercussions of the country’s rapidly expanding economy.” When Acquarello goes on to describe the four commodities as “conventional goods in an international free market trade and examples of global corporate branding,” I think he rather misses the point. There’s nothing ambiguous, ambivalent, or critical about the role of these consumer goods in the film. If anything, Jia celebrates them as markers of the connections made and relationships established between the ordinary heroes of his film, small human gestures that are an implicit protest against the inhuman construction, demolition and displacement project.
These four consumer goods are “still lifes” in terms of the film’s English title, moments when the film pauses in contemplation of the object or of the Chinese character representing it. The Still Life title — a still life in Western art being a depiction of an object or a set of objects for their painterly rather than narrative qualities — refers back to the very important formalistic features of Jia’s cinematic style, and throughout Still Life we will pause on what are almost frozen tableaux: close-ups of objects (a photograph, a banknote), or wider shots where a character (above all, Sanming and Shen Hong) stands motionless against a river or city background.
Still, in a sense this English title seems a bit of a misnomer, directing us away from the film’s important emotional and thematic concerns. The original Chinese title is more direct and more central to what the film is about. Sanxia Haoren means “The Good People of the Three Gorges,” although the Chinese “haoren” is ambiguous — it could also mean “The Good Person,” Jia’s allusion, I suspect, to Sichuan Haoren, the Chinese title for Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. (Sichuan Province — “Szechwan” is an older English variation — is, after all, where Fengjie is located.) Still Life is not a Brechtian parable, and the allusion is probably being made simply for euphony, although no doubt in contemporary China, as in the West today, referencing Brecht does have a flavour of the past, thus tying it in to one of the film’s major themes.
And who are Jia’s “good people”? They’re the ordinary people cast adrift by China’s social and economic changes, people whose lives are disrupted and have no choice but to adjust, change, and literally move on. Sanming and Shen Hong’s reactions to these changes — on the one hand to try to preserve a marriage, on the other to dissolve one — are a microcosm of a multitude of people forced to similar kinds of choices. Appropriately, the film ends with the demolition workers, the “good people” who were the original focus of Jia’s filmmaking visit to Fengjie. Their work is soon to come to an end, and like so many others in China — like the long line of Fengjie residents we see ready to leave, as Samning’s daughter already has, to the South — they will have to move elsewhere, probably following Sanming to dangerous but more lucrative coalmining jobs in Shanxi. In Still Life‘s final scene, Sanming and his fellow workers depart through the rubble-strewn landscape; Sanming separates from them and pauses, before walking off-screen himself, to watch a distant figure walking a tightrope strung between two buildings. This tightrope walker is the final image of the film. It’s a symbol of the difficult balancing act that make up these people’s lives, but this light, airy image also represents the particular grace and beauty of Jia’s film. --Bright Lights Film
*Subs on the linked video are several seconds delayed. Completely watchable but worth noting.