Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Still Life ***

Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Han Sanming, Zhao Tao
Li Zhubing, Wang Hongwei, Zhou Lin, Ma Lizhen

A clash of contrasts, ideas and symbols Jia Zhangke's evocative "Still Life" is the kind of film that can linger with you indefinitely because of all the meanings you can find in it.
Narratively simple and direct it follows a husband and wife looking for their respective spouses in the small Chinese town of Fengjie, which is being demolished to give path to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Han Sanming (Sanming) is a coal miner from the province of Shanxi whose wife (Lizhen) ran away sixteen years before taking their daughter. Once in Fengjie he finds that the street where she used to live is now underwater; he decides to wait until she comes back and finds work with a demolition company, paving the way for the subsequent flood.
Later we meet Shen Hong (Tao) a nurse looking for her husband (Zhubing), who works in the Dam, to deliver some news.
Even if the stories are never meant to intersect, you can draw parallels in them that go beyond the obvious search each character is doing.
There will be no dramatic climaxes, big twists or unexpected arch in the plot, Zhangke's objective was not to tell a story but to represent life under the modern China.
Shot in high definition digital video by Yu Lik-wai, the film proves once and for all that the inability to grasp beauty with the medium is up to each filmmaker.
This film could've looked like a documentary or like a home movie, instead Zhangke finds a strange beauty in the starkness of digital video. The images acquire a kind of texture that evokes frescoes, but upon realizing that what we find in them isn't antique but rather new, it makes for an interesting debate.
The director wants to take it all in and does so with stunning 360 degree vistas where the camera doesn't just pan, but glides taking in the majestic nature of the landscapes and the violent shock of the decaying infrastructure.
The characters walk while buildings collapse behind them which, more than symbols for their collapsing emotions, become evidence of an ever changing world.
There is political content within the film but the director just implies it, one of the characters laments "a city with 2000 years of history was demolished in 2 years" regarding his town and several other moments lead us to ponder on how the people living in current China inherited the dreams of past generations.
The Dam becomes the best example as a monument to progress that demands destruction in order to be erected (perhaps an analogy for the country itself?) and using it as backdrop Zhangke creates all kinds of interpretations to his film.
The director has a fascination with transcendence and while you can argue that every moment in life is impossible to repeat, the film makes its uniqueness more obvious because these places knowingly would case to exist to these people.
It is no coincidence that Han says "you never know who will survive" regarding his line of work and hinting at the cruelty of life.
"Still Life" also deals with language and perception. Several characters have trouble understanding each other because of their accents (microcosm?) and how could they not when they live in such a giant country that most of their citizens will never know in its entirety.
"My part of China is on a banknote too" says someone to Han and with this we are reminded of how many of these people have traveled far from home and the people they left behind are still connected to them (if by no other reason than the eventual effect of the dam in the Yangtze).
The movie offers its most fascinating element in its title, where the union of two words gives path to as many answers as it offers questions.
Does the "still" in the title refer to lack of movement or continuous existence? It may serve both purposes because at some point or other the characters' lives become stuck because they can't complete their missions. They are unable to go anywhere until they find their purpose.
The same can be said for the setting which are still, but changing and its only the characters living their lives that pass through them.
The word also serves the purpose of a life that hasn't ceased to be despite its shortcomings. The characters are poor, emotionally and/or economically, but they are still alive, while the town they are in will soon cease to exist.
Does the still imply a level of complacency or in fact invites them to gratitude? The issues regarding this probably are easily solved by anyone who knows Chinese grammar, but for those who know only the English title and are perplexed by the meanings, the mystery remains.
After watching the movie, it becomes just as tough to decide if it was coincidence or not.

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