Friday, June 24, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Still Life (2006)

Still Life (2006) ****
Directed by: Jia Zhangke.
Written by: Jia Zhangke.
Starring: Sanming Han (Sanming), Tao Zhao (Shen Hong), Zhou Lan (Huang Mao), Lizhen Ma (Missy Ma), Hongwei Wang (Wang Dongming).

For years, while Jia Zhangke was establishing himself as one of the best directors in the world, people in his own country of China had to see his films on pirated DVDs. He worked outside the Chinese movie system, which meant that his films were for all intents and purposes, banned. Still Life (2006) was the first of his films that the Chinese government officially allowed to be seen. But unlike a filmmaker like Zhang Yimou, who went from angered Chinese officials with his 1990 film Ju Dou, to making films that celebrated China and even ended up directing the country’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Still Life is just as critical of China, and the confused place the country currents sits in as the rest of Jia’s films. Like his 2000 masterpiece Platform, Still Life is about the changing economic landscape of China – from State run communist to State appoved capitalism, and how even with this freedom, the Chinese people really aren’t any better off.

The movie takes place in a small town along the Yangtze River, where all the residents are going to have to be relocated because of the massive Three Gorges Dam, that will end up flooding their town (Jia has said he thinks the reason why the Chinese government approved this film was because the Three Gorges dam and its effect of the people is too big to try and cover up). In total, a million people have been displaced because of this massive dam – the biggest in the world – that was made to produce electricity for the country.

But Jia’s film is not just a political statement on the dam. It is an immensely human drama, about two people, who never meet, but come to this town for the same basic purpose. Sanming (Sanming Han) once purchased his wife from this town, but once she had their child, a daughter, she fled back to where she came from. Sanming has not seen or heard from her in 16 years, and when he arrives, with a scrap of paper that has the address she left for him 16 years before, he discovers that the house in already underwater. He goes to see his brother in law, who he has never met, and he tells him that his wife is away, and won’t be back for a while. Rather than pack up and head back home to the coal mines where he has worked his entire life, he gets a job in town – picking up a hammer to help smash the building in the area that will soon be flooded.

About half way into the movie, with no resolution for Sanming (at least not yet, as Jia will come back to him to finish the film), the film shifts to focus on Shen Hong (Tao Zhao), who husband is working on the dam, and two years ago simply stopped coming home. She still gets a phone call from him once in a while, simply to check in to see if she is still alive. He has even gone as far as to give her a phone number without the correct number of digits so she cannot contact him. Like Sanming, she comes to find her errant spouse, not sure what she is to find.

By focusing on the human element, rather than simply the dam itself and its implications, Jia has made a film that is sad and humane. His camera glides effortlessly along, capturing some of the most memorable and beautiful images in any film in recent memory (that he shot the film digitally makes the feat all the more impressive). He observes his characters dwarfed by their surroundings – the massive mountains in the background, the shattered city coming down around them. Although the film focuses on two outsiders to this area, the film is just as much about the city – and its inhabitants – as it is about the main characters. The men Sanming work with all plan on joining him in the coal mines when they are down destroying their city and are forced to move. They have nowhere else to go.

Jia’s film are about the changing face of China, and the human element that goes into it. He does not romanticize the Mao era (how could he?), but he is not sure that the current system is any better – that it leads the Chinese people to live happier lives. Watching this film, I was reminded of the excellent 2010 documentary, Last Train Home, which was about a working class Chinese couple, who have to travel far from home to make a living, essentially living their children to be raised by their grandparents. As China continues to become the most important economy in the world, Jia’s film continue to probe the cost of doing so. There is no joy in Still Life, just people balanced precariously between the new and old China, trying not to plummet to their deaths.

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