Still Life (2006)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 51min

An expansive concrete dam, a mossy green river, and a crumbling grey city – this is the setting for Jia Zhangke’s greatest cinematic experiment in neorealism since Platform, and its three-pronged geographic metaphor is absolutely devastating. At the start of Still Life, the village of Fengjie is already half-submerged in water, as the flow from the soon-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam has partially flooded the valley. But this project isn’t done yet, and in order to finish it off, everything else in its path must be torn down as well. 
 
The tension between China’s fading history and the nation’s relentless pursuit of economic development has always been a critical target for Jia, but his use of architecture to reflect that has rarely been so stirring and visceral as it is here. Unlike Platform, we aren’t just watching a gradual decay, but rather the violent actions of an ancient village’s own inhabitants bringing about an apocalyptic vision of modernity. The layering of shots is especially important here, as Jia will often foreground quiet interactions against magnificent backgrounds of vast, hollow structures, and then aggressively rupture that tranquillity by collapsing those buildings before our eyes. It is arresting imagery, if not a little terrifying, and the impact is only intensified when we move in closer to montages of the deconstruction crews fiercely hammering away, taking the city apart brick by brick.

Jia’s architecture has never been so impactful in its rapid disintegration, a city literally collapsing around our characters in gorgeous frames like this.

Just as impressive is Jia’s attention to the symmetrical, trifurcated narrative structure of Still Life, splitting the story of one man’s return to Fengjie to search for his long-lost wife into the first and third acts, and then paralleling that journey with a middle act which follows a woman’s search for her husband. Just like Wong Kar-wai’s mirrored narratives of Chungking Express, neither of these plotlines meet directly and yet they share crucial similarities – Han Sanming and Shen Hong are both coming from the Shanxi province, are confronted by the destruction of a city that their memories are intertwined with, and must grapple with uncertain relationships being repressed by social changes. Even more remarkably, both bear witness to the most bizarre breaking of realism that Jia has attempted in any of his films thus far, as he transitions from Han’s story to Shen’s through their silent observation of a flying saucer flying above the city. As Jia himself puts it:

“Such a quick destruction of a 2000-year-old town is simply unimaginable. It’s as if there was an alien invasion.” 

A sci-fi intrusion into this narrative acting as a formal link between our two main characters who never directly meet even as they travel parallel journeys.
Beyond Antonioni, there are traces of Yasujirō Ozu in compositions like these.

Perhaps it’s all the same to the locals who witness this destruction every day, but to these two outsiders, it is an absurd sight to behold. Jia digs even further into this metaphor in continually returning to a shot of a building that looks a little out of place in its uneven design, and then, the final time we visit it, suddenly blasting it off into space. Elsewhere, workers in hazmat suits comb through the city’s ruins, looking uncannily like extra-terrestrial visitors, while droning, futuristic synths underscore it all. The Antonioni influence goes far beyond Jia’s extraordinary use of architecture to define his characters and their relationships – his overt blending of science-fiction tones with an otherwise realistic narrative and visuals strongly evokes a similar atmosphere captured in the final scene of L’Eclisse, where another ghost town vacated of its humanity is filled with an eerie, otherworldly emptiness.  

Men in hazmat suits looking like unearthly aliens as they comb through the debris of this city – almost apocalyptic.
Truly Antonioni-inspired in the angles of these structures, as labourers erode its foundations like termites.

Of course, it is important to remember that much of this ancient village has already been well and truly forgotten by its own citizens. When Han goes looking for his old house where he hopes to find his wife, he instead finds that it is submerged beneath the lake that ferries now lightly skim over, unmindful of the lost history that lies beneath the surface. Beyond its metaphorical implications, this flooding also practically complicates Han’s quest to reconnect to his own past, as he finds it has also erased many of the links that might have helped him find his way back. The motif of China burying its humanity is reflected in one especially cruel instance where a worker is crushed beneath a falling pile of rubble, and is nearly forgotten and lost completely until his colleagues hear his ringing phone. And as Jia reminds us by framing the Three Gorges Dam construction site in the background of Shen’s eventual breakup with her cheating, greedy husband, all of this cultural and personal devastation is wreaked by China’s inexorable economic ambitions.

A flooded city symbolising a repressed, forgotten past, rendered in ethereal, otherworldly greens.

Much of Han and Shen’s wandering through this dying city is permeated by a sickly, green haze that seems to cling to the river and forested mountains, simultaneously suffocating its remaining residents while bringing an ethereal beauty to its scenes of rapid decay. Nestled in a peaceful valley, geographically cut off from the rest of the world, this setting might have once been a quiet retreat from the industrial progress of modern China. But now, with the violent, aberrant influence of globalisation invading the far corners of the nation’s most sacred regions, the Fengjie of Still Life is a ghost town both utterly disconnected from its cultural identity and actively destructive of its own history.

Oppressive architecture wrapping around and towering over our characters, most significantly the Three Gorges Dam responsible for the flooding of the city.

Still Life is available to stream on Stan, Binge, Foxtel Now, and The Criterion Channel.

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