Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
Search for Posters
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Zhao Tao, Han Sanming, Li Zhubin, Wang Hong-wei, Xiang Haiyu, Lin Zhou Lin
Written by: Jia Zhang-ke, Sun Jianmin, Guan Na
Directed by: Jia Zhang-ke
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 01/18/2008

Still Life (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Yin & Yangtze

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At first, Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life seemed more like a missing epilogue from some other film. But I find that it won't disappear so easily. The more I think about it, the more I've been able to make certain visual and thematic connections. It's more fully realized and accomplished that it first appears.

Still Life takes place in and around one of the flooded cities that's part of the massive Three Gorges Dam project (which has displaced or will displace anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people, whose homes will be underwater; see the documentaries Manufactured Landscapes and Up the Yangtze for more info.)

A miner (Han Sanming) travels downriver to find his wife and daughter, neither of whom he has seen in 16 years. And a nurse (Zhao Tao) looks for her husband. Neither of these characters ever meets onscreen, though they share certain visual and story parallels. They both wander around the bizarre landscape, full of half-demolished buildings.

This rubble, half-standing, half-fallen, constitutes Jia's view and overall mood. Every shot contains some kind of visual conflict, such as workers pounding away at chunk of rubble while other, masked and suited workers come by spraying some kind of chemical on the grounds. Money is crucial to the film. Characters use etchings on bills to show images of their hometowns and a magician converts Yuan to euros. (Chow Yun-fat is also seen on TV lighting a cigarette with cash in a clip from A Better Tomorrow.)

Most important of all is Jia's ability to present his little puzzles in a dazzling package, filled with award-worthy cinematography and pacing. (It's often funny, too, as when a UFO suddenly takes off and flies through the air!) Indeed, it's a mistake to look at Jia's films as somber recordings of Chinese history and cultural displacement; he's definitely working through an ironic grin. He's an observer, but he has also taken up residence inside his filmic worlds.

The film won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006 and finally opened to limited USA distribution in 2008. I saw it at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival.

New Yorker released a 2008 DVD that comes with a Jia's new, 70-minute documentary Dong, a 17-minute interview with Jia, a trailer, liner notes essays and a downloadable PDF press kit. I have to say that I saw the film in the theater, projected from video, and the DVD is a marked improvement.

Movies Unlimtied