Monday, March 30, 2009

Still Life

Jia Zhangke (simplified Chinese: 贾樟柯; traditional Chinese: 賈樟柯; pinyin: Jiǎ Zhāngkē) (born 1970 in Fenyang, China) is a Chinese film director. He is generally regarded as a leading figure of the "Sixth Generation" movement of Chinese cinema, a group that also includes such figures as Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan.[1]

Jia's early films, a loose trilogy based in his home province of Shanxi, were made underground and outside of China's state-run film bureaucracy. Beginning in 2004, Jia's status in his own country was raised when he was allowed to direct his fourth feature film, The World with state approval.

Jia's films treat themes of alienated youth, contemporary Chinese history and globalization, as well as his signature usage of the long-take, colorful digital video and his minimalist/realist style. The World, in particular, with its portrayal of gaudy theme park filled with recreations of foreign landmarks is often noted for its critique of globalization of China.[21][22]

Jia's work speaks to a vision of "authentic" Chinese life, and his consistent return to the themes of alienation and disorientation fly in the face of the work of older filmmakers who present more idealized understandings of Chinese society.

Critics have noted that whereas "Fifth Generation" filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou churn out export-friendly and lushly-colored wuxia dramas, Jia, as a "Sixth Generation" filmmaker, rejects the idealization of these narratives in favor of a more nuanced style. His films, from Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures to Platform and The World, eschew the son et lumière that characterizes so many contemporary Chinese exports. But the films' recurrent and reflexive use of "pop" motifs ensure that they are more self-aware than the similarly documentarian Chinese films of Jia's Sixth Generation peers.

Still Life (Chinese: 三峡好人; pinyin: Sānxiá hǎorén; literally "Good people of the Three Gorges") is a 2006 Chinese film directed by Jia Zhangke. Shot in the old village of Fengjie, a small town on the Yangtze River which is slowly being destroyed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam, Still Life tells the story of two people in search of their spouses. Still Life is a co-production between the Shanghai Film Studio and Hong Kong-based Xstream Pictures.[1]

The film premiered at the 2006 Venice Film Festival and was a surprise winner of the Golden Lion Award for Best Film.[2] The film would premiere at a handful of other film festivals, and would receive a limited commercial release in the United States on January 18, 2008 in New York City.


Sometimes film festival juries actually get it right. Jia Zhangke has been making films for ten years, but, until now, a major festival prize (from the “big three” of Cannes, Venice, and Berlin) has eluded him. Finally, though, the Golden Lion bestowed in Venice on his newest feature Still Life acknowledges what students of international cinema already knew: Jia is one of the leading filmmakers of our time. His works advance the art of cinema in ways that are dazzlingly innovative, while also being precisely attuned to the radical new demands of 21st century society. Each of Jia’s films articulates an abstract structure of time and space, and a more sensual structure of feeling, through which we can see and feel our way to coming to grips with a new, changing world.

Prizes have little intrinsic values: the sales agents, distributors, critics, and the worldwide festival system together create an economy of cinema as marketable international luxury commodities, whose circulation and valorization are ratified and sustained by festival awards. I would rather set “prize-ability” against what Jia has accomplished with Still Life. This new film signifies an implicit refusal to participate in that particular economy, one that his most recent films, culminating in the international success The World (2004), have seemed more and more willing to integrate themselves into. The spectacle, the flash, the internationalized film language of The World (Jia’s first “official” film) made it as internationally distributable as a serious product of the Chinese independent film world could be, but at the cost of shifting the balance away from independence and toward easy consumption.

Still Life doesn’t play to the audience: it’s more tough, complex, dense, allusive, and mysterious, than any feature Jia has made to date. Like most of his feature films, Still Life presents characters on some sort of quest. Both main characters Sanming (Han Sanming, who played the same character in 2000’s Platform and The World) and Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) are searching for absent spouses. Coal miner Sanming’s wife left him 16 years ago, and he’s only just now travelled from his native Shanxi province to find her at her former home, the town of Fengjie, located on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province, just upstream from the giant Three Gorges Dam project. When Sanming discovers that the address his wife left him has now been flooded by the rising reservoir project—as has much of Fengjie—he decides to stay and wait for her, and gets a job with a demolition crew hammering the city to bits in advance of its imminent flooding.

Shen Hong is looking for her husband, who disappeared only two years ago to work in a factory in the Fengjie area. She seems to want her husband back, and finds an old colleague of his, Dongming (Jia regular Wang Hongwei), to help. When she eventually finds her husband, she tells him that she has a lover and that she wants a divorce. Sanming, on the other hand, does want his wife to return, and especially wants to see his daughter whom he has never met. We eventually find that he purchased his wife, who was abducted, probably by marriage brokers, and forcibly sent to live with him in Shanxi. Though he doesn’t find his daughter, in the end he meets his wife, and the possibility is raised that she might return to him in the future if he can raise enough money to pay her family’s debts.

Laying out a plot description this way is a bit misleading. Though there seems to be the outline of a well-behaved narrative—actually, two narratives, in which characters try to solve problems, proceeding chronologically towards a late climax and resolution—storytelling seems beside the point as you watch it. Narrative expectations are constantly thwarted: information is presented piecemeal, out of order, or elided completely; the climaxes are downbeat, purified of affect, and seemingly empty sections of time acquire the most weight.

Jia’s camera has two key preoccupations: physical bodies and landscapes. The bodies are male, copiously presented, and frequently half nude. This is something completely new in Jia’s work. His camera slowly, repeatedly, pans over groups of ruddy skinned workers as they rest, eat, play, or hammer away at the infrastructure of Fengjie that they are slowly pounding into rubble. These tableaux of bare-chested men are not movie-beautiful: they are natural, tough, work-honed bodies, with a tangible sense of weight, of taking up space, containing a wiry potential for endless physical labour. One might even detect something like an eroticized gaze in the film’s obsessive, close, lingering pans.

Landscapes are treated in a remarkably similar way: long, slow, 180-degree pans that turn vast fields of rubble, waste, and half-decayed, soon-to-be-demolished buildings into epic tableaux. In style, these images seem partially derived from traditional Chinese scroll painting, but have nothing to do with them in content. It is precisely the spectacular ugliness of the physical devastation of the urban environment around the Three Gorges that captures the camera’s gaze: an anti-still life that monumentalizes destruction, giving it an awful, sublime grandeur normally reserved for scenes of natural beauty.

It is precisely in the intersection of these two obsessive imageries that the film generates its own particular beauty: namely that of bodies walking through wastelands. Both main characters pick their way, without comment, through this post-disaster landscape, two individual lives persisting within an absolutely inhospitable environment. One of the things the film celebrates is this miracle of human persistence: how the necessary—survival—trumps the impossible.

Miracles are on offer, too, in a wry, understated mode. Jia offers visions of flight and some strange magic. An impossibly shaped building takes off like a rocket before the men with the hammers can get to it. A flying object streaks before Sanming’s and Shen Hong’s eyes: Is it some embodiment of their need to move through impossible barriers, their ability to imagine how to change their worlds? They never meet, but an angel ties them together: a young singing boy who smokes and strolls in and out of their worlds, singing at the top of his voice. In the end, another symbolic linkage: a high-wire artist appears, in the distance, suspended between two buildings that are destined no doubt to topple over some time soon.

Still Life incorporates a complex symbolic system that suggests possible meanings without fixing them definitively. Most prominently displayed are the set of four ambiguous symbols of consumption and enjoyment that the film underlines with titles onscreen: cigarettes, wine, tea, and candy. They stand in as replacements for the standard four household items (fuel, rice, cooking oil, and salt) that represent the daily necessities of life in a set Chinese expression. Jia’s update replaces survival with pleasures, even addictions. Those looking to find support for an ambivalent interior critique of the concomitant pleasures and dangers of turning cinema itself into a series of tantalizingly consumable items could do worse than start here.

That high-wire act is another symbol, one of a series of spectacular linking images that includes the new suspension bridge over the Yangtze lit spectacularly by order of an official for his assembled VIPs. The Three Gorges Dam itself appears at the end of Shen Hong’s story, both linking and separating the two sections of the river: the massive upstream reservoir with its disappearing strata of devastation and the downstream section leading to Shanghai. This ambivalent signifier of construction/destruction serves as an ironic backdrop to Shen’s announcement that she herself is leaving her husband. The physical landscape seems just as much in need of sustaining connections as the characters we see wandering through it.

The image of the Dam raises a whole set of political issues contained within the film, a social critique that works much more powerfully on an abstract level than as a direct commentary on the long-lived debated over the Three Gorges project. That the film was approved by the Film Bureau for exhibition in China is quite an achievement for Jia and his co-producers the Shanghai Film Studio. The film implies that the Fengjie Relocation Office is a gathering place for local thugs, who, organized by goon contractor Mark (a charismatic Chow Yun-fat worshipper with a gangster’s swagger), and at the behest of local demolition officials, beat up poorly compensated residents of local apartments who are not moving out quickly enough. This nexus of official corruption, massive property theft, and gangster muscle is well known throughout China, but displaying it even glancingly onscreen, in a film going into Chinese movie theatres in December, is rather unexpected. It’s also notable that censors allowed the scene at the Dam to pass (I don’t think marriage breakups are the sort of activity party officials imagined threir monumental structure serving as a cinematic backdrop for). Chinese press reaction to the Venice win was predictable, universally lionizing Jia as the latest exponent of national pride and then deftly subsuming him into the pantheon of contemporary cultural heroes.

On the screen, Still Life offers an unusual kind of beauty, both astringent and monumental. This beauty is mediated through images that are distinctly video in origin (HD, but video all the same). It’s there in the crispness of line, in the almost brutal sense of contrast between hot whites and dim blacks. We are far from the lush HD images of The World, the degraded medium definition video of Unknown Pleasures (2002), the classical 35mm palette of Platform, or the 16mm indie grunge of Xiao Wu (1997). There are trade-offs, obviously, in a filmmaker’s choice of medium today. What Still Life gains is precisely the shock of truth. Its “video-ness” suggests an immediate, direct transcription of reality that challenges the viewer in what can only be described as an ontological way. Look at what reality is; look deeply into the way things actually exist, the film seems to be demanding. At the same time, it denies the processed, aestheticized pleasure of much of today’s mainstream art cinema.

Jia shot Still Life in some of the same locations and at the same time as the documentary Dong and the relationship between the two is provocative. Dong records the painter Liu Xiaodong as he prepares two large-scale works, one of half-naked male workers in Fengjie lounging with the river as a backdrop, the second of female entertainment workers in Bangkok lounging en deshabille amidst fruits and furniture. In Dong, we are supposed to be seeing documentary truth, as the artist Liu paints real people in a real place. But Sanming is in Dong, as are some of the other characters from the movie. Yet he is not really a worker in Fengjie, he only plays one in Still Life. So what is he doing in Dong? Similarly, shots are shared between the two films: the creepy disinfectant team in their moon suits, the bare-chested men hammering in syncopated rhythms at the city ruins, the collapsing wall of one wrecked building.

As Jia maps it, cinema does not divide neatly into fiction and documentary. Dong creates a subjective world, as much inside the mind of the artist Liu as outside in objective space. Still Life digs deep to reveal an underlying reality, mobilizing sophisticated formal strategies to create images of truth. These same strategies demand—or, rather, construct, during the process of watching—viewers who are ready to watch, absorb, and feel this vision. It is a vision of a man-made hell, of the monumental and limitless destruction left behind by a society rushing to tear up its foundations and gut its history. And it is a vision of embodied resistance—an individual, physical resilience that can spark an impossible, miraculous, but tangible hope in a world that seems to offer none.

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