Still Life Review

There’s a pattern emerging from Jia Zhang-ke’s features. Just as his full-length debut Xiao Wu gave way to the three-hour-plus Platform, so too Unknown Pleasures was followed by the epic theme-park set The World. Thus feature number five Still Life returns to the small-scale dramas of Unknown Pleasures, not to mention its digital execution and interweaving of real-life events. There it was the announcement that China would host the 2008 Olympic Games, acts of terrorism and politics forever in the background on TV sets. Here it’s right at the forefront as Jia takes his cameras to the town of Fengjie and captures the effects of the Three Gorges Dam project.

The decision to utilise digital is absolutely spot-on in these circumstances, lending Still Life a terrific immediacy. This may be a film that exudes the confidence of a director with a decade’s worth of features under his belt (note the outlandish science fiction touches that’ll keep audiences and critics occupied for years to come), but also a style and outlook more at home with the Chinese underground cinema where Jia started out. The cast is strictly non-professional, or so it would appear, the soundtrack is largely unadorned with post-production tinkerings, and the photography is purely matter-of-fact. Delicate pans – emphasising the deliberate pace – are the only genuine aesthetic touch, but then the setting itself is utterly stunning. Indeed, the HD only enhances this; at once so real we feel as though we could almost the landscape and without self-conscious photography so as to allow the natural beauty to speak for itself.

Within this backdrop Still Life presents two complementary stories, each involving an outsider coming to the area to find family members, one male and one female. Interestingly, Jia confounds any narrative drive by making these “quests” less than mutual. In the first we discover that the wife was a mail order bride who deserted her husband following police intervention; in the second it is suggested that the spouse has been (or is still having) an affair. This short circuiting suggests that Jia is using the plot merely as a route into Fengjie, though it shouldn’t be considered a flaw. His pair of outsiders are substitutes for his own non-local eyes – essentially this is a fresh look at the impact the dam has had on those effected the most and it comes with a real sense of discovery. Still Life is a portrait of a society that has come about through rapid change, and one that will soon disappear for the very same reason. It’s a fleeting glimpse at a fleeting moment in time, the extras (seemingly just there as opposed to being stage managed) providing a continual subtext to the more overt drama; as Jia has said in interviews, “every scene [in this film] is political”. And so the title of Still Life takes on a dual meaning: not only does it emphasise the portrait-like nature, but also the idea that life goes on, no matter what the circumstance.

The Disc

Jia’s films haven’t been treated too well on DVD in the UK thus far. The two Artificial Eye releases (Platform and a pairing of Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures) were both hampered by less than perfect presentations, whilst The World has yet to be picked up by a distributor though it has received television screenings. Thankfully Still Life proves to be a massive corrective, not only in its superb presentation but also courtesy of a pair of thoughtfully programmed extras. In contrast to the AE discs, the film here looks absolutely superb. We get the original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced of course, whilst the HD allows for an excellent rendering of Still Life’s textures and beautiful setting. Optional subtitles are also present, newly translated (thus upping the BBFC certificate to a 15) and free of any problems, in all cases a vast improvement to the previous Jia releases. The soundtrack is similarly crisp and clear, the DD2.0 rendering appearing to be the correct one (I could see no indication during the end credits that it was intended for a 5.1 mix). Put simply, you couldn’t hope to see Still Life looking or sounding any better on a standard definition disc.

The first of the two extras is a wonderfully full and well-rounded commentary by critic Tony Rayns. Stating early on his distaste for those tracks that simply describe the on-screen action, Rayns goes the other route providing valuable background into Jia (and his career so far) plus the elements which are likely to escape non-Chinese viewers. Moreover, he never once lets up or runs out of steam; from start to finish it makes for a rich, informative listen. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also present, an unexpected bonus.

The second addition is Jia’s other 2006 effort, Dong. Ostensibly a documentary on the painter Liu Xiadong, this 66-minute piece makes for a valuable companion piece to the main feature. Its first half is similarly set around the Three Gorges and takes a similar approach to Still Life (not to mentions its sharing of optional English subtitling and anamorphic presentation in its original aspect ratio). Liu may be the thread which holds the whole thing together, but Jia allows his camera a probe the surroundings as much as it does his subject. The second half follows him to Thailand as he works on another painting, again providing a parallel with the feature, this time in its narrative split. The only question is as to where it would sit best on a double-bill, first or last?

Mention should also be made of the accompanying booklet containing newly commissioned articles, interviews with Jia plus filmography and full credits for both Still Life and Dong. A fine way to round off an excellent all-round package.

8 out of 10
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