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February 4, 2007

Still Life, 2006

still_life.gifPerhaps what is most striking about Jia Zhang-ke's latest digital feature, Still Life, is its unexpected maturity, a marked evolution away from capturing the sad, eccentric tales of youthful indirection and cultural anachronism of contemporary Chinese life under an often contradictory, dual economy system that defined his earlier films towards a more somber - and classically humanist - portrait of anonymous, uprooted lives lived in the (un)certainty of state-sponsored phased extinction along the margins (and bowels) of China's profoundly transforming economic and physical landscape. Composed of two parallel stories of familial absence - a coal miner named Han San-ming searching for his estranged wife and teenage daughter (whom he has never seen) in a now submerged Sichuan village that had been demolished during the first phase of an ambitious, ongoing Three Gorges Dam project (envisioned by the late Chairman Mao Zedong), and a woman, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) seeking contact with her husband, a politically connected civil servant who has been sent to the village of Fengjie by the government to oversee the demolition project and has not returned home in two years - the film is a serene, breathtaking, and elegantly realized, if seemingly aesthetically depersonalized, panoramic tale of displacement, exclusion, and marginalization. That is not to say the Jia's recurring themes of the breakdown of family, the paradox of alienation in the most populous country in the world (a generational phenomenon that Jia allusively attributes to the government's instituted one child policy during the 1970s in his magnum opus Platform), the profound social polarization caused by the ossification of the state economy (in favor of opening certain market sectors to free enterprise), and the erasure of cultural identity in the face of globalization have been omitted from the film's aesthetic vernacular. Rather, Jia's brash, idiosyncratic touches of everyday absurdity - so integral to his meticulous (and implicitly political) illustrations of the contradictions of contemporary Chinese life (and particularly reflective of the cultural and generational intimacy revealed in his quotidian observations) since the country's formidable emergence into the world market - have been narratively tempered and relegated to the anecdotal interstices of offhanded humor (most notably, in sequence featuring a rock band featuring the lackluster choreography of visibly out of place hip hop dancers, in the image of Chinese opera-costumed performers playing with portable video games as San-ming observes the inclement weather from a window, and in the whimsical image of derelict structure that transforms into a launched rocket) in favor of a more contemplative exposition on an amorphous and faceless human condition in the wake of traumatic, if seemingly inevitable (and socially necessary) process of modernization.

Jia's more allusive, poetic, and subtler approach to illustrating the social repercussions of the country's rapidly expanding economy is perhaps best exemplified by his use of consumerist-themed chapters such as "Cigarettes", "Tea", and "Toffee" throughout the film - conventional goods in an international free market trade and examples of global corporate branding (as in the case of the ubiquitous White Rabbit toffee candies) - as the characters' fragile, connective tissues that continue to bind the characters (through the tactile reinforcement of their consumed consumer staples) to their absent and estranged loved ones: the cardboard from the box of a now-defunct cigarette company, Mango, that contains the former address of San-Ming's wife that is now located at the bottom of the Three Gorges Dam, the box of tea that Shen Hong retrieves from her husband's abandoned locker, San-ming's polite offers of cigarettes to his newfound friends and colleagues at a boarding house populated by migrant workers, the White Rabbit toffee that San-Ming's wife offers him as he broaches the subject of the possibility of a future life together (a tender overture comically - and quintessentially - interrupted by the unexpected razing of a derelict building in the background). However, in exploring themes of estrangement, cultural disconnection, and forcible uprooting, Still Life diverges from the rough hewn cultural testaments of Jia's earlier films and converges towards the broader, artistic experience of diasporic cinema, particularly, towards Tsai Ming-liang's and (early) Hou Hsiao-hsien's expositions on spiritual displacement and pervasive sense of otherness. It is this departure towards the universality of a certain aesthetic convergence that ultimately tempers the gravity of the film's powerful and poignant observations of marginalized existence. Inevitably, what had made Jia's cinema so incomparable in its originality and cultural authenticity has, itself, become a reflection of the borrowed culture of globalization that he has incisively captured in all its dislocated idiosyncrasy: erasing the inimitable precision of an indigenous voice - and implicitly, its role as cultural witness to the trauma of China's rapid transformation - towards a certain anodyne resonance of an all-encompassing, cross-pollinated, human polyphony.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2007 | | Filed under 2007


hi acquarello --

Interesting that we saw this the same weekend. Did you order it on DVD from China?

I'll be posting my reflections later today, and your comments have offered plenty of food for thought. You are absolutely correct that this is a more "mature" Jia - one thing that struck me was how his regular actors Zhao Tao, Han Sanming, and good ol' Wang Hongwei have aged, and how they look very much in their 30s and how much that resonates with me. I don't think I'll ever be able to separate myself from Jia's films because they seem to chart an aging process of a generation in China that mirrors my own in my own place in the world.

I agree that his style in this film is "tempered" -- but that may not just be a function of his personal mellowing out as much as it is a response to the environment he is filming. The landscape of the 3 Gorges is jaw-droppingly bizarre in and of itself - and full credit goes to Jia and Yu Lik Wai for having the presence of mind to just let the camera take it all in with those gorgeous steady pans.

Regarding your chosen phrase "aesthetically depersonalized", which I take as being connected to the perceived tempering of his style -- I wouldn't go so far to say that he's withdrawn from the personal. The first shot that pans 360 degress inside the boat is not just random doc footage -- there's a way of looking at these people, and they all have a distinct swarthiness to them, a rawness, that is Jia at his best (think to the last shot of XIAO WU). It's a shot that's just brimming with humanity.

"Still Life diverges from the rough hewn cultural testaments of Jia's earlier films and converges towards the broader, artistic experience of diasporic cinema, particularly, towards Tsai Ming-liang's and (early) Hou Hsiao-hsien's expositions on spiritual displacement and pervasive sense of otherness." I actually felt this way about THE WORLD, which I found to be a fascinating but not entirely successful attempt to read a litany of global significances into a single site. What I really liked about STILL LIFE is that there's less of an editorializing presence and things are allowed to be themselves first and foremost. It gives me the viewer more space to contemplate what I'm seeing.

I had to read your last sentence several times to surmise your position, and it sounds to me like one of disappointment? Are you saying that he's dissolving his unique aesthetic into a more generic Asian arthouse mode? If so, I'm not sure I agree - or at least I'm not sure how less "indigenous" the voice in this film is compared to that of THE WORLD...

Posted by: alsolikelife on Feb 05, 2007 12:11 PM | Permalink

Thanks for posting your thoughts, alsolikelife. Yup, got the DVD last week from good ol' Yes Asia.

I wouldn't say that Still Life was disappointing, I actually liked the film quite a bit, but I also felt that Jia's "imprint" was not really there, and that's what I found a little problematic about it. I'd even say that Yu Lik Wai's imprint is more evident in this one than his. Honestly, except for the appearance of his regular actors, I don't see how this film could not have been made by another high caliber filmmaker like Hou or Tsai or even Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

I do also see Jia as a kind of voice of his generation, and this is probably the reason that I find his point of view so unusually distanced and estranged in this film. Sure, it could be attributed to their displacement. But on the other hand, it also plays into the idea of the commonality of human experience. In other words, I'm not seeing a "specificity" in this point of view that reinforces this role of "voice of his generation" that I'm used to seeing in his films, there's nothing "uniquely Chinese" about this experience. The context of the Tree Gorges Dam could just as easily have been framed within the context of gentrification, eminent domain, squatters, developers from WTO countries gobbling up prime real estate in underdeveloped countries, and so on. It's this step back towards the safety net of capturing "universal human experience" that I think illustrates how he played it a little too safe with the film. Yes, it's still a touching a beautifully told story, but not one where I felt that I learned something new about the Chinese experience from.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 05, 2007 1:41 PM | Permalink

Hmm... an interesting reversal of roles emerging here, as I've been used to taking the critical offensive with THE WORLD for very much the same grounds you've taken with STILL LIFE. I felt like THE WORLD, from its incipient concept to its execution, strained towards the universal humanist statement on global society, even in its most touching moments (Zhao Tao's character's relationship with the Russian woman). Sure, it was set in a specifically Chinese environment, but to me it amounted to "generic treatise on globalization with Chinese characteristics", along the lines of what you are saying about STILL LIFE.

My biggest grievance with THE WORLD was that I didn't feel Jia explored theme park location as rigorously as he could have -- he seemed a tad content to make easy visual jokes at its expense and let it sit as a bulging eyesore of a metaphor. Everything taking place within the space, from the costumes to the characters movements seemed to follow suit, a thickly and somewhat coarsely drawn thumbnail sketch of the endlessly referential but ultimately rootless nature of global culture. What I wanted to see was a greater sense of surprise and unexpected discoveries in what possibly lay in these manufactured landscapes. Perhaps what I ultimately sought was a Chinese PLAYTIME. Some colleagues rebuked me for wishing the film were something other than what it was, but those were my feelings. Basically, I didn't want to read a magazine article, I wanted to experience cinema.

I will have to see STILL LIFE again, but if what I've been looking for is a Chinese PLAYTIME, I got something close to it here. I think there is a lot of playfulness and active consideration of these spaces, and not in a predetermined, tract-like way, but in a more intuitive and meditative fashion. It seems to resist making conclusive statements and is more attuned to what it feels like to live here. Even the fantasy gestures are a product of that sense of lived-in-ness -- the UFO moment wouldn't have come if Jia hadn't spent time considering the possibilities of that structure -- in other words he earns those fluorishes (I can't entirely say the same for the crudely executed cell phone animations in THE WORLD). In this sense it could very well be the antithesis of THE WORLD, which to me was a film that both in its content and execution reflected a certain restlessness and desire for something other than what is there.

But building towards your argument that Jia has lost a bit of his "voice of a generation" and is dissolving into a global arthouse approach... I'm not sure yet how my position fits into that. I don't know if I'm necessarily opposed to your point of view, except for your last point about "learning something new" about the Chinese experience. I can address this by going back to this issue of informational reportage vs. sensory embeddedness. If you're looking for the former, I admit the film doesn't offer any earth-shattering insights on life in China. But as I was saying with THE WORLD perhaps we're at a point where informational dispensation doesn't cut it anymore, and I'd like to think Jia feels the same. The way to go then is to take us into the experience of what it is like to live in this space, so that we aren't just informed, but that we experience true empathy. As an act of cinematic immersion into a specific environment, I think THE WORLD succeeds brilliantly.

Posted by: alsolikelife on Feb 05, 2007 2:21 PM | Permalink

Heheh! Yeah, I remember your reservation after the NYFF screening of The World. Seriously though, I thought it made sense for him to make this "Disneyfied" image of China in The World, where everything is fake and plastic because it reflected the country's "image consciousness" in the lead up to the Olympic bid.

Expectation definitely plays a big part in what I found missing in Still Life (I could substitute auterism for expectation in that sentence too). If I had seen the film without knowing the filmmaker and not recognizing his ensemble players, I would still be impressed, but I wouldn't be able to identify enough signatures to tell me that he made this film. Instead, there's something of Claire Denis' corporeality in the filming of the bodies, something of Tsai in the whimsical interstices, something of Hou in the dislocation, something of Rossellini in the crumbling landscape, and even something of Fellini in the carnivalesque opening and the "suspended man" concluding sequence.

You make a good point about reportage versus immersion though. There's an inevitable paradigm shift in his work from when he was working independently to becoming "official", and in a way, he's going through a similar situation that people like Almodóvar, Sokurov, or Angelopoulos did when the political climate changed in their countries. There's a turning point when subversive art becomes part of the culture, and that does seem to be the phase he's in creatively. He does seem to have moved on (or is in the process of), which is why his characters have visibly matured in this film (particularly Zhao who always struck me as being a girl rather than a woman until this film). As I mentioned earlier, I really did like this film, but I guess there was just too abrupt a departure from his earlier films than I expected, and perhaps a little more infusion from other filmmakers' aesthetics than his own.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 05, 2007 8:00 PM | Permalink

I obviously haven't seen this yet (although I'm now tempted to order the DVD), but your guys' discussion is fascinating. I wonder, have either of you seen DONG, the documentary short that is sort of part of the STILL LIFE project?

Posted by: phyrephox on Feb 06, 2007 4:03 PM | Permalink

Hi phyrephox, alas, the Dong disc on the two-disc release of Still Life doesn't have English subtitling, so I haven't mustered enough confidence to tackle it subless. :(

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 06, 2007 7:43 PM | Permalink

Hi Daniel -- just checked your site. Is BARDO really that bad???

PA -- those are interesting connections you make to other filmmakers' styles in STILL LIFE. And again, a true role reversal in light of my unfavorable comparison of THE WORLD to PLAYTIME. This is something I talk about in the first two paragraphs of my Senses bio on JZK, that critics are inclined to view Jia through the filters of other filmmakers, which may come at the expense of seeing what's unique about him.

The issue of his being officially sanctioned as a filmmaker by the state, on the other hand, is definitely one to consider. Of course it's one that he is loath to discuss on record. On the one hand it's amazing that he's made films that are as critical of aspects of Chinese society and has gotten them distributed. On the other hand, one wonders if this is the State co-opting Jia as a way of subverting dissent by having control over it.

PS: Jia is currently working on two projects. One, in what may be his most expensive film to date, is a martial arts film that takes place in Shanghai near the tail end of the Cultural Revolution (Jia promises that he will invent his own social-realist brand of martial arts cinema for this one). The other project is a historical film about a woman's life journey, to be set in his hometown of Fenyang, his first since PLATFORM.

Posted by: alsolikelife on Feb 06, 2007 8:53 PM | Permalink

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