Few of China's Sixth Generation filmmakers have turned to their country's explosive economic growth and its attendant upheavals with so sharp an eye and so heavy a heart as Jia Zhang-ke (PLATFORM, UNKNOWN PLEASURES, THE WORLD). Jia's fifth feature -- the winner of the top prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival -- depicts the continuing dissolution of traditional Chinese communities while making brilliant use the most dramatic example of China's latest great leap forward: the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydro-electric power station that, when finished, will have displaced nearly 1.5 million people and caused an unforeseeable amount of environmental damage.
Han Sanming (Jia's cousin Han Sanming), a coalminer from Shanxi province, arrives in Fengjie District searching for Missy Ma, the bride he illegally purchased sixteen years earlier, and their daughter, who returned to Fengjie with her mother after the police remanded the child to Missy Ma's care. To Sanming's great surprise, the only remnant of the street on which Missy Ma once lived is a small dot of land in the middle of what is now a huge reservoir; the rest lies deep underwater. As his motorcycle taxi driver (Lan Zhou) tells him, Fengjie was one of the many districts submerged as a result of the enormous Three Gorges Dam. The original residents have all been (supposedly) paid off and relocated, so Sunming's best bet is to visit the Relocation Office and request a database search for Missy Ma's current whereabouts. The office, however, turns out to an inefficiently run limbo where disgruntled former residents fruitlessly complain about their compensation payments; the database, meanwhile, is inaccessible due to a faulty computer system. After renting a cheap room, Sanming learns from an elderly survivor of this now dispersed community that he can find Missy Ma's brother in his new home on a cargo ferry. Brother Ma tells Sunming that Missy Ma now lives somewhere downriver, and while he doesn't appreciate his dubious brother-in-law returning to stir up the past, he suggests Sunming wait around a month or two; Missy Ma is bound to return. In the meantime, Sunming gets a job on a demolition team, clearing the way for the next phase in the reservoir's monstrous growth by tearing down now empty houses with a sledgehammer and dismantling the hulks of rusting, disused and probably poisonous factories that have been bankrupted and sold off. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse who also hails from Shanxi, arrives at one of these factories looking for her spouse, Guo Bin, who stopped coming home two years earlier. For help, she turns to Guo Bin's friend, Wang Dongming (Wang Hongwei), an excavator for the Fengjie Antiquities Bureau who's busy digging for the remnants of a 2,200 year-old Han Dynasty tomb before the waters rise any higher. Dongming agrees to help, but he seems to share Shen Hong's suspicions that Guo Bin has been carrying on an affair with the head of the demolition company for which he works. But Shen Hong doesn't care: Unlike Sanming, she's not interested in a reunion. She's come about a divorce.
Divided into four chapters, each named after simple commodities that are either exchanged or rejected among the characters ("Cigarettes," "Liquor," "Tea," "Toffee") and thereby reinforcing the film's theme of the tenuousness of social relations in this brave new China, STILL LIFE was made in conjunction with DONG, an hour-long documentary that Jia had first intended on making upon his arrival in Fengjie. DONG centers on the artist Liu Xiaodong, whose paintings depict the men of the demolition crews, and while the film addresses life in the shadow of the Dam more directly, in STILL LIFE we see those lives unfold with a profound depth and complexity. Jia's visual vocabulary continues to mark him as one of China's most accomplished filmmakers. Along with a number of striking pans and tracking shots that reveal the extent to which the region has been scarred and transformed by the construction, we get a few touches of surrealism (watch the skies!), humor and memorable symbols, often involving currency. The cheap magician's trick which transforms worthless scraps paper into Euros and yuans is an image that speaks volumes. leave a comment --Ken Fox