A town in Fengjie county is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. A man and woman visit the town to locate their estranged spouses, and become witness to the societal changes.
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Against the backdrop of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam engineering project in the declining city of Fengjie, a poor mine worker from Shanxi, Sanming, arrives in the dilapidated town in the hope of finding his unknown daughter and his ex-wife, Missy Ma, who left him nearly 16 years ago. But in the meantime, a nurse from Taiyuan, Shen Hong, also comes to Fengjie in search of her husband who's been missing for almost two years. Though Shen and Sanming are two perfect strangers, their parallel quests for their beloved missing ones signify the urgency to retrieve what lies hidden in the past, as man is dwarfed by an ever-changing landscape which threatens to bury one's memories deep under water.Written by
Jia Zhang-ke continues with his good work while becoming a little more accessible
China's sixth generation director Jia Zhang-ke's recent Golden Lion winner at Venice is slightly more accessible to the general audience than his previous work, although Shijie (2004) has been heading generally towards that direction. Unlike Xiao Wu (1997), which is completely devoid of story or plot, Still Life at least has a story (in fact two) of sorts but, to Jia credit, stays away from the conventional Hollywood melodrama formula. The last thing we need is another Hollywood-look-alike movie made by a Chinese director who gives up what he is good at to impersonate a Hollywood director. There are already too many.
The story of the Three Gorges Dam begs to be told. Jia tells it from a micro, personal angle, by weaving two separate stories together, with the Three Gorges Dam project not just as a backdrop, but also as a subject of enquiry. In polarized contrast to the gorgeous tourism posters, Jia's camera shows the devastation along the Gorges in a way that almost reminds you of the ruins in Polanski's "The pianist". In the two unrelated stories, two people arrive in the same riverside town, a nurse looking for her husband who seems to have lost interest in her, and a coalminer searching for his wife who left him, taking with her their daughter.
These stories are told in Jia's usual minimalist style, but with pain sticking attention to details. Instead of the dialogue, it's the nuances, the body language, and even the framing of the shot that reveals. New to Jia's screen are moments of playful, surprising touches as if the director is saying "Hey, I can handle surreal too". The appropriate use of pop music from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland of China adds to the dimension and depth of the film.
True to his tradition, Jia films the life of ordinary people just as it is. The coalminer in Still Life is one in real life, and a relative of Jia. He even uses his real name Han San-ming. True to his tradition again, Jia uses only one professional actor, Zhao Tao, but she is so good that you can't tell her apart from the rest of the "cast" in terms of being an authentic, ordinary person that Jia might have just picked from a crowd in the street.
I miss Jia's earlier work such a Xiao Wu, for its uniqueness and detached, realistic depiction of lives of real people. On the other hand, I don't mind his introduction of conventional "entertaining" elements, so long as he stops before, way before, succumbing to the senseless scramble of the Chinese 5th generation directors to capture the Hollywood market. Many a soul has been sold for fame and fortune.
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