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Still Life

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It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006. And here, in 2009, I figure it's time we had a thread on it.

I've only just caught up with Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, and it's left me in a very strange mood. I feel the same sense of sadness that I felt when I saw Up the Yangtze (an extraordinary documentary) last year, probably because it's set in the same context.

It's a sadness that's hard to describe. It's heartbreaking enough when you see news of a child drowning in a lake. But in these films, you're watching, in very very slow motion, an entire civilization drowning. And this isn't a tsunami, a natural disaster where the people have nowhere to send their anger but upward. This is a government-sanctioned flooding of river valleys with histories that run back thousands of years.

Filming in Fengjie, Jia gives us images of a real place that has to be seen to be believed.

China is tearing down thousands of years of history, demolishing buildings, driving old farming communities to higher ground, and then flooding the entire Fengjie landscape through the installation of the enormous Three Gorges hydroelectric-dam project. Watching Up the Yangtze, I saw a present-day Atlantis formed, as villages were drowned by the rising waters, while the villagers stood on higher ground staring down in disbelief as their histories and their ancestors histories' were submerged. To add insult to injury, they then had to go looking for work -- new work, often in tourism, as Westerners come "flooding" in on cruise ships to tour the region.

How can any sense of sadness be an adequate response to this? Whole villages are being forced out of their families' homes, livelihoods, and histories... and they were nearly starving to begin with. What will they do now? Most of them are already so far behind the modern world that they'll have no hope of finding a place anywhere.

Both Up the Yangtze and Still Life are beautiful movies. Beautifully horrifying. They feel like the documentation of a turning point on Planet Earth.

In Still Life, we follow two people who are searching for loved ones. One is a rural coal miner (Han Sanming) looking for the wife and daughter he lost 16 years earlier. The world is crumbling around him as he travels back through lands he once knew. He hardly recognizes anything, and nobody lives where they once did. It's as if he's desperate to reconnect with the last strand of connection he has with the past, as if he fears his wife and daughter were swallowed up in the rising waters.

There's also a woman (Zhao Tao, who was in Jia's The World) looking for the husband she hasn't seen in two years. She feels he has betrayed her, or at least been very dishonest. I'm not sure what to make of this simpler storyline, unless their relationship is meant to suggest the relationship of China's people with their government.

The two stories never directly connect, save for their similar backgrounds, where cities have been hollowed out so that they look like massive wasp nests. If you pay attention you'll occasionally see a skyscraper suddenly implode in the distance, erased from the skyline as if it was never there.

Cinematographer Yu Lik Wai has a slow, observant style, panning patiently from left to right and back again as if his attention is more on the context than the characters, and who can blame him when you have that context? These are some of the most disturbing, apocalytpic images I've seen in any movie... precisely because they are not digital inventions. I kept thinking of lines from Radiohead songs: "This is really happening, happening! Women and children first!" "It's the devil's way now... there's no way out... you can scream and you can shout... it's too late now... because you have not been paying attention."

Two men sit drinking and reminiscing, and one tells the other that they are both unfit for this new world because they are "nostalgists." It turns out that he's quoting Chow Yun Fat from an old, favorite movie. Then they sit across the table from one another and, in one of the film's most intimate exchanges, they call each other's cell phones so that they can hear each other's ringtones. One is an old, old song about China, and the other is a dreamy, romantic pop song about the flowing river of love. Meanwhile, a different kind of river swamps a civilization behind them.

But it gets stranger. Once in a while, you might see a U.F.O. Or notice a building in the background blasting off like a space shuttle.

As wacky as that sounds, it works. Because it gives us a strange sense that things are accelerating far too quickly, so that we don't even know what's happening, or understand the skylines that are materializing in this new world. Are they falling to pieces, or part of some new world for which we have no key, no language, no marketable skills?

On the wall of one of the crumbling buildings, a banner reads, "Give it all you've got!" Is it a command for the demolition workers? Or was it an instruction for the people who lived there, whose efforts are now being swept away, as if they never existed at all.

Edited by Overstreet

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I recently watched this and The World back to back and it was devastating. There is an essay on Kwan's Rouge that talks a bit about how the concept of nostalgia has changed in China because of the kinds of events depicted in Still Life. Throughout history people have typically linked nostalgia and memory to specific places. Whether it is a house, a street, towns, or other locations, people generally tend to use places as placeholders in their memory for things they consider nostalgic.

But what happens when places are built and destroyed so quickly that "place" ceases to be a meaningful category? Is nostalgia even possible? Chinese development is erected and destroyed at such a rapid pace that the traditional models of nostalgia and memory making have been corrupted. Still Life also seems to exist in this gap between memory and location. It is terrifying.

I am not sure this has happened in America to the same extent, but I do wonder if our most recent generations' penchant for embracing pop culture so nostalgically is related. It would explain why Tarantino is so revered.

Edited by MLeary

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I watched this one on my way through viewing the films in the A&F Top 100. Seeing this film was particularly interesting for me because I travelled down the Yangzi River through the Three Gorges in December 2005. The film came out in 2006, so it must have been filmed around then, I'd guess in either the summer of 2005 or 2006. I was very much a tourist (though the boat I was on was geared toward Chinese people, not foreigners) come to see the Three Gorges while they still could be seen. And while the scenery was indeed gorgeous (pun unintended!), and some of the cultural stops memorable, what I most remember is bearing witness to the unmitigated social and environmental disaster of the flooding. It was surreal to see half demolished cities, half submerged cities, habitations of the soon to be displaced still trying to go on with life, the disorientation of those in the cities soon to be flooded who had (it appeared) already been displaced. I’m so glad this film bears witness to what was happening then, all that destruction--personal, cultural, historical, natural, etc. The moments of magical realism in the film were a little jarring but seemed to fit exactly right in terms of the utter strangeness that I remember experiencing on that trip. The film is stronger for including them.

I thought the scene where the workers compare the images of natural landmarks on paper money was particularly brilliant. It captured the regional pride in natural beauty being filtered through a simulacrum/representation in an alien context and the subjugation of the importance of nature to financial realities (they're using money to discuss the value of nature). That doesn’t do it justice as an explanation, but the scene really nailed it.

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Thanks so much for posting, this Rob. It is great confirmation of my experience of the film, which still haunts me. And you used the phrase "bearing witness," which is a helpful way to process Jia. We just have to learn how to look, long and deep.

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