The Humanists: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006)


by Colin Marshall

Here we have a movie set on the spectacularly picturesque Yangtze River, each background a minor wonder of natural aesthetics, shot on the same digital video format used by cash-strapped film-student projects. It's a picture seemingly imbued with the hard realism of halting conversation and deep-seated yet somehow accepted character misery, yet it features a conspicuous flying saucer, a building launching off like a rocket, an out-of-place tightrope walker and inexplicable ballroom dancers on a bridge. Not only do its two searching protagonists, a man with a missing wife and a woman with a missing husband, never fall into one another's arms, neither one even gains awareness of the other's existence.

Clearly, Jia Zhangke, Still Life's director and a leading light of what's called the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, has the confidence for strong choices. Bred in an environment of meticulous state censorship, he and his cinematic cohort have acquired a skill set including, but not limited to, how to slip material of substance beneath the censors' radar and how to know when to say “Aw, the hell with it” — or the Mandarin equivalent thereof — and simply make the films one wanted to make in the first place. Yet another contradiction arises: despite being one of Jia's rare state-approved projects, it also looks through Western eyes like one of the most daming of his government's behavior.

The decaying riverside town of Fengjie plods through the process of gradual, deliberate self-destruction. As the Three Gorges Dam's construction grinds ahead just downstream, the water level rises, regularly rendering another, higher band of the city uninhabitable. Goverment employees show up to mark the newly projected water lines with plain, stern signage while de-construction workers tag the buildings slated for demolition with single characters in white spraypaint. Given its structures' pre-existing state of crumbliness and its people's air of thoroughgoing resignation, manually taking down Fengjie feels almost redundant.

Sanming, a hardy, diminutive coal miner, shows up in Fengjie in order to finally track down his sixteen-years-absent wife. Hong, a relatively middle class-y nurse, travels to the doomed city with the slightly more reasonable goal of catching up to her husband, who left home to pursue work just two years previous but has been nearly as uncommunicative as Sanming's lost partner. Though both do ultimately come face-to-face with their respective estranged spouses, neither achieve what could be called a clean, satisfying resolutions. The film's artful balance of plausibility and fantasy thus continues undisturbed.

Laying out two parallel narratives linked by geography, theme and a host of other, subtler echoes, this structure could easily grow tiresome — and, in other movies, easily has. Jia evades this dire possibility by pulling both swords' narrative thrust. A de-emphasis on straight-line causation and a tight focus on the detail of each particular moment keeps the stories from becoming dutiful, tiresome pursuits of quarry. As more than one critic has observed, the objection that “nothing happens” turns out not to apply to a film like Still Life, where plenty happens; it just doesn't necessarily happen as a direct consequence of what happened previously.

And in any case, the progress of Sanming and Hong's quests is not, one dares argue, the most important thing going on here. The twin spouse-seekings provide flexible frameworks on which to hang this portrait of an unusual condition of humanity. The people of Fengjie aren't in despair, exactly, since the Communist Party's ambitious dam has been a long time coming, but nor are they particularly comfortable with their displacement. For some, the expected shoo-away nevertheless comes surprisingly early; a certain type of old-timer seems shocked that their neighborhood's passing before they have.

This is fertile ground for polemic, but, to Jia's eternal credit, he plants his garden in a more complex, far less programmatic matter. As bitter as he may be — or, for all we know, may not be — about the state's decision to prioritize hydroelectric power above the non-submergedness of towns like Fengjie, not to mention their residents and their homes, he never lets it damage his filmmaking. Typically, when a director takes on an issue of pressing social importance, the aesthetics are the first to go. Any frame of this film, selected at random, signals no loss on that front. The well-crafted structure, so often compromised in this scenario, also remains intact.

And there's even humor! It's of a somewhat dark flavor, sure, but the times depicted aren't exactly silly ones. There's the absurdist insertions cited at the beginning of this piece aside, most obviously, but even the just-mentioned structure has its wryness: four pieces of onscreen text divide the film into sections labeled “cigarettes,” “liquor,” “tea,” and “candy,” perhaps the replacements for the traditionally defined Chinese household necessities fuel, rice, oil and salt. This latter-day Fengjie is, after all, no longer a host of traditional households; hard-eyed laborers, hopeful mobsters and straitened, harried soon-to-be former residents have their own needs.

Despite dropping into the midst of what sounds like utter chaos, Still Life remains composed, in both senses of the term. All the confusion and panic of Fengjie is executed with a measured, almost contemplative deliberateness. The sense of the filmmaker's calm is constant, and, outside of a sparse array of flashpoints, it comes through in the characters as well. This is perhaps the largest contradiction of a fascinatingly self-contradictory film: it captures in detail what seems such an angry situation without once raising its own voice.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.