Saturday, December 13, 2008

Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) A Film by Jia Zhang-Ke (2008)

In many ways, Jia Zhang-Ke's 2008 feature Still Life is modern China's answer to Antonioni's L'Avventura. The backdrop is a flooded Fengjie, whose weathered remnants of buildings are being demolished by workers for low pay, a project deemed the Three Gorges Dam (Yung Chang's recent documentary Up the Yangtze covered the same topic). Jia creates an interesting snapshot; workers are being rewarded to destroy the city of their past lives - thus contributing to China's rapid industrialization - to allow for a new neighborhood to be built. Like L'Avventura, the environment is one that is jostled and undergoing inevitable modernization.

Jia introduces a coalminer from Shanxi who is in search of his past wife and eventually his daughter. His pursuit begins with motivation, but is diverted by the demands of the scrambled climate and the rich social fabric that Jia presents. About one quarter through the film, a nurse, also from Shanxi, arrives with her own set of goals: finding her more immediate husband. Amidst these catastrophic times, there is a noticeable decline in human values and an unfortunate inability to establish an identity and mold past relationships. Antonioni's film dealt with similar thematic ground: the failure of personal identity and by extension, the advent of isolation in a changing world. When the coalminer and nurse do finally meet, there are no fireworks. Each of them realize what has been lost and cannot be salvaged; the result is an uncomfortable vow for remarriage between the coalminer and his ex-wife, and a sad agreement to divorce between the nurse and her husband.

Jia typically refrains from deep characterization however to revel in the awesomely beautiful setting with HD video. In fact, scenes involving an influx of characters are often shot in deep focus to dissolve the protagonists into the anonymity of their surroundings, making them just one in the crowd. Such interiors, which often involve a crowded grouping of people in anguish, are shot quite spaciously, allowing for the viewer to almost feel the breeze coming through the broken walls. One calmer shot fantastically composes five shiny bare-chested workers seated closely eating bowls of noodles. Still Life succeeds the most however when the camera quietly observes the deconstructed landscape with a splendid use of natural light. Immense pan shots reveal ravishing juxtapositions of foreboding mountains adorned by fog, decrepit buildings inhabited by ghostlike silhouettes of men hammering away at the bedrock, and a glistening Yangtze river. Jia's perceptive attention to detail is exhibited in these fine pieces of photography and in the rhythmic sound design of the workers' clanking.

Unfortunately, the dazzling fiction/documentary fusion is interrupted occasionally by the surreal: a UFO speeding by the vista or a building's infrastructure lifting off like a space shuttle. Jia discusses how the setting seemed to him like it had fallen prey to an alien attack, but if these images are some puzzling result of mass dementia, I feel they are not aptly suited (not to mention they are distractingly digitized). This minor flaw unfortunately feels like vital punctuation and not simply visual flair. Without a doubt though, Still Life, like L'Avventura, displays with eloquence the personal effects of a wavering environment.

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