Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) stands somewhat at the intersection of the director’s earlier, more distinctly fictional, narrative films, and with his more recent, documentary style releases. While there is a plot and characters, this picture also captures a specific moment in time and records a pronounced and profound shift in the Chinese landscape and the culture around the Three Gorges town Fengjie. In so doing, Jia crafts what remains his greatest work, and indeed, it is one of the best films of the last 25 years.
The film follows, first, Sanming (played by Sanming Han, a relation of the director’s), a character who first appeared in Jia’s Platform (2000). He travels to Fengjie in search of his wife, Missy Ma, who, with their daughter, left him 16 years ago. The reason for the delay in tracking down his family is unclear. He’s told by her brother that she is away, working elsewhere. It’s best if he just waits, which he does, getting a demolition job in the meantime. Apparently around this same period, in a nearby section of the destruction- and construction-ridden region, Shen Hong (played by Tao Zhao, another frequent Jia collaborator), arrives in search of her husband, whom she has not heard from in roughly two years. With the assistance of one of her husband’s coworkers, she manages to track him down. Neither of these stories end entirely happily, though there is a sense of contentment being reached.
While these domestic dramas are unfolding though, the film’s other main thread begins to unspool. As much as anything else, Still Life is about this national project, the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River. It’s about the harsh conditions of its devoted workers, some sacrificing — literally — life and limb. It’s also about how this endeavor is presented. Governmental publicity touts the project as a grand effort supported by Chinese leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. This is something for the people to be proud of; and in fact, there has been success with the enterprise.
Yet, while this is being perpetuated, we also see how the flooding of the region will adversely affect its inhabitants. (To be sure, the engineering feat has also had its fair share of drawbacks). Marks on rocks and walls indicate the future water level. In detached and powerful views, we notice just how much lies below those markings: homes, businesses, human existence. This will all be destroyed. These people will have to find a life elsewhere. And while this tragic juxtaposition is being presented, Jia also shows how the river area has been developed into a tourist attraction. The result is bitterly comic.
An occasionally critical view of Chinese politics and society has not always made it easy for Jia, though as noted in a New York Times article, Still Life was approved by the Chinese Film Bureau and was co-produced by the state-operated Shanghai Film Studio. A reason for this, according to Jia: “The impact of the Three Gorges project is phenomenal. It’s not something the government can cover up.”
The title of this film goes two ways. On the one hand, it does seem to describe the form of the picture — typical of much of Jia’s work — as well as the temporarily idle life of its two main characters. In the case of the former, many shots in the film are held for a considerable length, a pace unusual compared to the quick cutting style of most American releases. Slow pans of the landscape and its inhabitants going about their business and static, observational shots of the same dominate much of the picture. In the case of the latter, both Sanming and Shen spend a substantial portion of their time immobile, waiting, watching, wondering.
On the other hand, Still Life seems ironic, as this area, and the lives of its people, in a broad and quickly dire sense, is becoming more disturbed and uncertain by the day. There is nothing sedentary about what is transpiring around them. Buildings are being demolished from all sides, boats and trucks are constantly moving, hauling sand bags and people up and down the river and the roads. Still Life is actually in many ways a depiction of lives frequently in flux.
As with other films by Jia Zhangke (some of the best include Platform, The World (2004), and 24 City (2008)), there are moments of “art film” whimsey. Chinese characters and their English translation — for cigarettes, liquor, toffee, and tea — appear on screen. Are these singling out precious commodities? Do they carry a deeper meaning? About 40 minutes in, a UFO of sorts soars across the sky and seems to divide the two stories of the film. And later, a rather bizarre looking structure lifts off like a spaceship (perhaps it’s the UFO?).
Upon release, Still Life was widely heralded, ending up on many “ten best” lists for the year. The influential French film journal "Cahiers du cinéma" chose it as the second best film of the year, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it the best foreign film, and it took home the top prize Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
At the end of the decade, "Film Comment" contributors placed it at number 27 on its list of the best films from 2000-2010. Platform came in at 11, The World at 24, and 24 City at 98. Four films in the top 100 — That should say something about Jia Zhangke’s place in contemporary world cinema.