Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Still Life

Still Life (2006, Jia Khang-Ke)

With Still Life, director Jia tells two stories that are common not only because that occur in the same city, Fengjie, but because thematically that are tightly associated with the real societal and demographic shifts emerging from the creation of the famous Three Gorges dam. A coal miner (Sanming Han, a real coal miner) and a nurse (Tao Zhao) return to the city where they once lived, searching for lost loved ones. The city is not far from the infamous Three Gorges Dam, and many of its older areas have been completely flooded. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a series of rather quiet scenes featuring cinematic shots of Fengjie and of the lives of the movie making a living in this city that has seen some radically demographic swings in recent years.

The acting is surprisingly good for a cast filled with non-actors. Nothing is stilted or false, and everyone pulls their own weight nicely. There are a lot of subtleties in the eyes or movements of the characters which convey motives, thoughts and emotions very well. The mere fact that Jia successfully gets effective performances out of his actors, who are, for all intents and purposes, non-actors, would be alone to recommend the film, in addition to its very lyrical nature. But where the movie really shines is in the visual depiction of the location. A lot of story is told merely through the camera work. It is a marvelously good looking film. Many places in Fengjie are featured throughout the movie, which provides the viewer with a fairly intimate look into the story of not only the characters, but of the place at large. The movie moves along very delicately as well. The cinematographic quality of the film is at times jaw dropping. These days in cinema a lot of movies 'go digital' in the creation of artificial worlds and characters. Depending on what kind of story the director wants to tell, this obviously can have its merits. But, personally, it is when filmmakers use high quality equipment to depict real life elements that I get particularly excited. Still Life is a case in when in which Fengjie and its surrounding region look so gorgeous on film it feels life some kind of National Geographic documentary at times. It allows the viewer to take everything at a slow, but productive pace. The movie could practically function as a documentary about life in Fengjie, but it also benefits from the two fictional and touching stories it tells.

Sanming, after arriving in Fengjie, earns a job as a building demolisher. He has left his life as a coal miner and of course needs to start earning some funds. But there was something quite emblematic in seeing the inhabitants of the region take apart these apartments. The times are changing in the region with this large scale project. There are valid arguments that the use of the dam will reduce China's dependence on coal, which, it can't be hidden, is a major contributor to green house gas pollution. China has depended for many years on coal, which is far more dangerous than hydroelectricity to the environment (not to say that the construction of hydroelectricity dams carries no ecological footprint either however). With that in mind, I found there was a very ambiguous feeling about the scenes in which the viewer witnesses these workers, some of whom probably live in the region, helping in the destruction of the homes.

There is a great 2-3 second clip in which the viewer hears a news report regarding the evolution of the Three Gorges dam. The broadcaster mentions how the citizens of the region have committed a 'great sacrifice' to the cause of this project. I thought that was very pertinent to the mood of the film and the mood of what is happening in China right now. It's a country that has truly exploded onto the international stage in recent years in terms of economic performance and how it holds sway in how international politics and economics are dictated. It's project like the Three Gorges dam that can get the ball rolling with regards to job creation and economic booms, not to mention the potential long term environmental benefits (which I believe outweigh the long term ecological footprint of hydro dams, because they do exist). And yet, we're witnessing the destruction of how a town use to live and be itself. It was that ambiguity which I felt that made Still Life particularly interesting.

For all the very real, down to earth elements highlighting the film, be sure to catch a couple rather fantastical touches sprinkled throughout the film. They may come off as odd a first, as they did for me. Jia catches the viewer off guard by throwing in these brief science-fiction elements into the mix. The debate as to what these short sequences bring to the movie can rage on, but they aren't enough to distract thankfully.

Jia Khang-Ka has crafted a fine piece of cinema with Still Life. It features characters and a place that are going through some profound changes. Jia finely tunes his film to give the viewer an honest and believable sense of what shifts exactly are the two main characters experiencing, but also how they fit perfectly into the overarching demographic and economic changes the region is involved in. The two subject matters are intimately linked and this makes for a fascinating viewing experience.

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