Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Still Life

Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006) is about two characters on parallel tracks that never meet; but unlike Martin Scorsese's The Departed (made the same year)--to name a purely random example--which emphasized the similarities between its two protagonists through cross-cutting, Jia allows viewers the room to make connections for themselves. It's a movie that benefits from multiple viewings.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam, a massive engineering project that's displaced over one million Chinese. As the movie opens, Han Sanming (Han Sanming) arrives in Fengjie looking for his ex-wife, Missy Ma (Ma Lihzen), who left him 16 years earlier, taking their infant daughter. A cabbie agrees to take Sanming to the address his wife gave him before leaving, knowing full well that the entire neighborhood's underwater. ("I used to live over there.") While he continues his search, Sanming finds work helping to demolish what remains of the city--including, ultimately, the hotel where he's staying.

A coal miner from Jia's home province of Shanxi, Sanming moves through the film with an implaccable determination that belies his sullen demeanor. He befriends a petty criminal, Brother Mark (Zhou Lin), who quickly intuits that Sanming bought Missy on the black market. "Look around! There are more women than men. Lots of women got sold off." What remains a mystery is why he chose now to look for his ex-wife and daughter after so many years.

While the movie associates Sanming with the parts of the city that are disappearing, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao)--a nurse who's also from Shanxi--tends to gravitate towards newly built, gentrified neighborhoods as she searches for her husband, Guo Bing (Li Zhubing), an engineer who stopped coming home two years before.

As in Jia's previous feature, The World (2004), corruption is nearly ubiquitous in contemporary China. Even before he arrives in Fengjie, Sanming is literally dragged to a sleight-of-hand performance in which the magician promises to reveal the secret to getting rich, converting blank paper into Euros and then RMB. After the performance, several men walk through the audience collecting "tuition." It's implied that the Three Gorges Dam is a similar sort of con but on an infinitely larger scale.

Watching the film, one is reminded of the lost city of Atlantis. As one character puts it, a city with two thousand years of history was demolished in two years; and the western-style architecture replacing it is only designed to last twenty years at the most. When Sanming and Hong both see the same flying saucer, the special effects are, I think, deliberately generic.

The juxtaposition of the two stories recalls the two-part structures of Jacques Rivette's CĂ©line et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (2004), which bring together wildly divergent material, inviting the viewer to make comparisons. Here, some of the connections are obvious (both Sanming and Hong are looking for absent spouses), while others--like a young boy who sings acapella in two scenes--are more mysterious.

Still Life, which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is not a stand alone work. At the same time Jia was making it, he was also working on a non-fiction feature, Dong (also 2006), that's also about the Three Gorges Dam. (According to some reviews I've read, characters from Still Life can be glimpsed in the documentary.) So as much as I enjoyed Still Life, I can't claim to understand it completely, including the title. That said, while I think seeing Dong would clarify some things, I don't think (and wouldn't want) it to answer everything; even after three viewings, it's a film that still holds plenty of secrets, which only makes me more eager to see it again.

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