Still Life Review

The changes that China is undergoing as part of its relentless progress towards modernisation and its integration into the wider world as a global economic force are something that the country’s most progressive young filmmakers simply cannot ignore. Its impact, particularly on the poorer people displaced by the social and economic reforms, have already been addressed in films such as Diao Yinan’s Uniform and Ning Hao’s Mongolian Ping Pong, and even the Fifth Generation filmmaker Chen Kaige alluded to tremendous cultural riches being bulldozed away in the headlong rush towards capitalisation in his segment of the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older, 100 Flowers Hidden Deep.

The issue has been of increasing importance for Jia Zhang-ke, one of China’s most important young filmmakers, who has gradually moved away from his depictions of individual alienation and isolation in Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures to a wider consideration of the place of China in the world today and the consequent social upheaval this means for its inhabitants. This was clearly evident in Jia’s previous film The World and is expanded on further in his latest film, Still Life, the winner of the Golden Lion at Venice 2006. Not content with a fictional representation of the cultural, environmental and social vandalism currently being enacted through the 15-year construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze depicted therein, the director supported the film with a documentary Dong, a real-life depiction of people living in the region seen through the eyes of painter Liu Xiaodong.

Still Life shows the arrival of two people to Fengjie in the Sichuan province of China. Han Sanming (Han Sanming) arrives in the city looking for his daughter who he hasn’t seen since he split up from his wife sixteen years ago, but he finds that the address of the house he is looking for is no longer in existence. It is underwater, flooded in an early phase of the creation of the Three Gorges Dam. While he searches for relatives and anyone who might know where they might have relocated he takes on work, helping demolish and clear sites for the next phase in the creation of the dam. Shen Hang (Zhao Tao), a nurse, also arrives in Fengjie looking for her husband Guo Bin who hasn’t been in contact with her for two years. An important and busy man, meeting clients and businessmen connected with the construction of the dam, even his friend Dongming hasn’t seen him for a year. Shen Hang however has issues that they need to resolve.

Through these two characters and their relationships, Jia Zhang-ke tries to relate the circumstances of the people not only of Fengjie, but the wider population in China. The director has a difficult task to balance the contrivance of fictional drama and not letting it overwhelm the reality of social issues it raises, and largely it succeeds – though much will depend on individual viewer responses to what is shown and how it is presented. Incidental details reveal not only how a city with 2,000 years of history and culture is being thoughtlessly destroyed, but how the administration is failing to consider the people who live there, failing to relocate them and cater for the loss of their businesses. A young girl approaches Shen Hang looking for work as a maid, prepared to move away anywhere that she can get the work. When Han Sanming prepares to return to his home province of Shanxi, he tells his fellow construction workers that they are welcome to come there looking for work, but warns that they will find life as a coal miner in the provinces no easier than in the rapidly changing Sichuan region.

All this gives some indication of the wider impact of China’s rush towards modernisation, where the only people who benefit will be major corporations, not the people in the provinces. The authorities are notable here by their absence, and all the decisions seem to be taken by big business corporations. Just as much is imparted to the viewer in the relationships of the central characters, but in a much more oblique fashion, which might not resonate with every viewer. Each of the stories unfolds at a slow pace, the camera panning along with the characters, showing impressive views of the Yangtze in the background. The destruction in their relationships, their uncertainty of their situation is all mirrored in the city that is gradually being torn down around them, and it is perhaps the sense of the loss of certainties in their life that the Jia Zhang-ke is trying to capture rather than any direct metaphorical meaning.

Searching perhaps for other ways to convey underlying meaning, much is also imparted through the strong presence of music and songs in the film. Most bizarrely, space-age special effects occur at several points in the film, flying saucers soaring overhead and a bizarre construction that takes off like a rocket ship. Their intrusion into these scenes of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives, only serves to underline the deep culture shock that is unfolding. We cannot yet imagine the full sense of meaning and impact that this will have on the people of China, but it will keep Chinese film directors like Jia Zhang-ke very busy making films for many years to come.

Still Life is released in China by Warner Bros. The two-disc set contains the film Still Life as well as Jia’s Three Gorges documentary Dong. A single disc edition of Still Life alone is also available. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 6.

Still Life is clearly shot on HD Digital and consequently the only flaw in its transfer to DVD is that the 1.78:1 image is presented without anamorphic enhancement. There is some minor motion blur visible occasionally, but this is most likely a consequence of the digital recording medium. The image shows excellent clarity, high contrast, vivid colours and no other flaws or marks. The image is resolutely stable. As a PAL image it can be zoomed to full widescreen with little loss of resolution.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is clear throughout. The sound is directed mostly front and centre, and separation is not particularly strong, but it seems deliberately low-key in keeping with the nature of the film.

English subtitles are provided and, barring one or two minor issues and an indiscriminate use of capitalisation at the start of words, the subtitles are clear and grammatically fine. They cannot be changed during play, so you’ll have to experiment through the Chinese menus to find the English subtitle option.

The two-disc edition of the film includes Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Dong (68 mins), filmed simultaneously at the time of Still Life. There are no English subtitles however for this film, which appears to focus on a local painter Liu Xiaodong and some of the models he uses from among the local population, including Han Sanming, who appears in the film.

China is one of those countries in the world where filmmaking is currently booming in reaction to a tremendous social upheaval, circumstances that have traditionally led to important film movements such as Italian neorealism and Japanese post-war cinema. Finding a way to represent these issues in cinema is an on-going challenge for Chinese filmmakers - no longer just in getting the films past the censors, but in capturing the sheer scale of its impact on a vast nation and the speed with which it is all happening. HD Digital Video then is an important tool in capturing the immediacy of events, and it is forcing directors to find a new cinematic language to express their ideas. At this point it is perhaps difficult to completely grasp the significance of new Chinese cinema, not only in terms of its influence on filmmaking or about what it tells us about social change in China, but about what it is telling us about the modern world and how what is happening there affects all of us. With directors like Jia Zhang-ke and films like Still Life tackling serious and relevant issues, we are seeing some of the most interesting cinema in the world today.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:18:58

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