China’s recent love affair with the bloated historical epic has left many art house cinema lovers rolling their jaded eyes. A welcome relief may be found in Zhang Ke Jia’s “Still Life” (2006), a complex portrayal of everyday life during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Creation of the dam submerged countless villages, cities, and towns, (many of which contained rich cultural and archeological treasures) and forced 1.5 million people to abandon their homes. Amid the chaos and destruction of the dam project, Zhang Ke hones in on the parallel activities of two unrelated people from Shanxi, as they search the soon-to-be-flooded town of Fengjie for their missing spouses.
Coal miner Sanming (Sanming Han) has returned after a sixteen-year absence to find his wife and daughter. He knows nothing of the current circumstances in Fengjie and is shocked to find his wife’s last known address is now under water. His search thwarted by ambiguous answers and inconsequential events, Sanming takes a job in town as a demolition worker. Shen Hong (Tao Zhao) has also come to Fengjie to locate her errant husband, from whom she has not heard in two years. Structurally the film divides their stories into four parts. Each of these divisions is named after a specific nonessential commodity – cigarettes, wine, tea, and candy. In traditional Chinese culture, the four basic household necessities are fuel, oil, rice and salt. By replacing them, Liang Ke cleverly alludes to the de-domestication of Fengjie, a place where families have moved on, populated only by temporary residents.
“Still Life” was shot in hi-def digital video to give it a documentary quality. This look of ‘reality’ could have gotten the film banned had Zhang Ke been overtly critical of the conditions in towns like Fengjie, but he nimbly dodges Chinese censorship by not taking a socio-political stance. Instead, he fills the screen with long, panned shots of the landscape and focuses his lens on Fengjie’s ubiquitous deconstruction workers, whose incessant din accompanies the town’s dismantlement. Unmarked stretches of time are punctuated with incidental events in a loose composition of scenes. The film’s forward movement relies heavily on visual ideas and symbolic elements. Dialog is minimal, narrative non-linear, and events ignore cause and effect. Most of the time nothing of note happens and unexplained occurrences remain unresolved. Yanming and Shen Hong go about their separate lives but never meet.
As beautiful as the visuals are, watching “Still Life” can be a frustrating experience at times. The pacing is incredibly slow and we spend a good deal of time gazing out at people moving about their surroundings as they alternate between activity and boredom, confusion and engagement. Zhang Ke presents us with a film that plays out like everyday life as lived under surreal circumstances. While we may try to impose meaning, the full effect of the film is felt rather than understood. For the patient viewer, “Still Life” is an elegantly composed, poetic film about how it feels to exist in a place where change happens so quickly it can never be grasped and time is marked by what will be under water next week.