Chinese director Jia Zhangke opens the interview included with the DVD of his movie Still Life by saying, “The Three Gorges project is the largest artificial project in Chinese history.” He first visited Fengjie, near the giant dam, while working on a documentary about the painter Liu Xiaodong. (That documentary, Dong, is also included on the disc.) He was struck by the massive scale of the destruction and relocation that the hydro-electric dam caused by the flooding Yangtze River. Jia says, “It’s more like after a nuclear war or alien attack.”
The flooding was carried out in stages and Jia realized that if he wanted to make a movie there he would have to work fast before the city had been demolished and the people relocated to other towns. He used HD video for the speed in production it allowed and to enhance the spirit of improvisation (with mostly amateur actors) that he had used on previous films.
In previous films like The World and Platform, Jia has examined individuals struggling against the massive scale of China’s shift to a more capitalistic economy. With Still Life, the Three Gorges project and the approach he uses to tackle its effects pushed the already masterful director to a new level of artistic complexity, blending ancient and modern influences, pop, folk, painting, and documentary into a sprawling yet finely detailed portrait of a society suffering from profound psychic discord.
The story is broken up into four parts – “Cigarettes”, “Liquor”, “Tea”, and “Sweets” (translated as Toffee in the subtitles) – and follows two main characters that travel to Fengjie near the Three Gorges Dam in search of missing spouses. Sanming (Sanming Han, Jia’s cousin), a miner from the north, discovers that his village has been flooded, tries to find and buy his bartered bride back, gets temporary work with a demolition crew preparing for the next dam-related flood rise, and befriends a boy who imitates Chow Yun Fat.
About a third of the way through the movie, it switches to the point of view of Shen Hong (Tao Zhao). She tries to reconnect with her absent husband only to find that he has turned into a powerful and ruthless businessman, owner of the same wrecking crew that employs Sanming. After she finds her husband and announces that she is leaving him, the story switches back to Sanming, who finds his wife, loses his friend, and leaves Fengjie alone to return to the mines.
Jia had supposedly envisioned that the documentary Dong be paired with Still Life and on the DVD it functions, outside of its own excellence, as a kind of director’s commentary on the approach he took and some of the issues he may have dealt with in the production of Still Life. Though Jia was already composing his imagery on an epic scale in previous films, Liu Xiaodong seems to have specifically influenced the way he composed his shots here.
Liu paints large group portraits in a format broken up in different panels, recalling Chinese scrolls. This idea is picked up by Jia in his landscape shots that frequently overlap and are broken up by sideways tracking and pans to contrast natural and industrial geography. Liu also poses subjects drawn from every day life as models for his paintings, the same way Jia uses non-actors in his films. Of course, painting is also referenced in the title.
Jia uses some of the same subjects of Liu’s Fengjie paintings to play the demolition workers in Still Life, and several scenes featuring them in the documentary are used in Still Life, sometimes shot from a different angle. Jia is fond of mixing documentary and fictional techniques in his narrative storytelling. He has a skill at extracting abstract yet casual moments from the everyday, as when Sanming and the demolition crew show each other their homelands as depicted on the back of paper money. But he also uses their occasional stilted deliveries to highlight lines of dialogue with a jarring formality: “A city with a 2,000 year history was demolished in two years.” “You made Chairman Mao’s dream a reality.”
The different formal, realistic, and abstract elements are combined in Jia’s use of pop music, where the song lyrics can be re-interpreted, often ironically, against the backdrop of the action while the actors, singing the songs with the off-key passion of a drunk karaoke performer, reveal something of their inner emotions as stirred by the bland lyrics: “Make all my dreams come true/ With all my heart and soul/ I’ll always be true to you”; “Let’s fly to eternity far from the world”. Performers – a magician, a punk band – in a folk-like context appear to comment acidly on their surroundings while slick entertainments – the pop songs, a Chow Yun Fat movie – offer a false, ungraspable reality. The “natural” and “artificial” are constantly battling as effective aesthetic approaches to be used by the director and within the narrative landscape as a ways for people to define themselves and their surroundings.
Against this often hectic environment, the central characters move with a quiet painterly grace. Sanming and Tao’s performances are thoughtful and stoic. They let their surroundings do most of the emoting. The movie depicts a very specific type of individual alienation and desolation in the Fengjie region while suggesting that the situation ties into larger patterns of Chinese history.
There are some odd surrealistic touches: a building in the background launches into the sky like an alien spaceship, a buildings collapse suddenly at the end of a conversation, and a man is viewed tightrope walking between two roofs. But the evocation of scrolls and the structure (“Cigarettes”, “Liquor”, “Tea”, and “Sweets”) ties the characters to something older and shared and, Jia says, is meant to recall the “’planned economy’ periods” of Mao.
The characters in Still Life have a kind of off-hand complexity. The only storylines worked out are the straight-forward, partially thwarted quests of Sanming and Shen to find their spouses. Everything else is left to be guessed at or inferred from their surroundings. There are strands of other stories never fully explicated: a feud between two demolition crews where we only see people going to and from the fights, an old property owner named Mr. He being driven out of his building. It gives the characters the feeling of people being met but never known, the sense of a complex life that we will never try to explain to each other.
The characters also seem distracted, lost and permanently dislocated, rendered nearly mute by their outsized backdrop and grasping for assurance of themselves and their worth within a larger societal construct that grants them none. This makes Jia’s surreal lyricism all the more effective. Quiet terror is their most vivid, unifying trait.