Though it takes place in a real place and depicts the results of a real undertaking in the river city of Fengjie, China, Still Life, the latest unclassifiable exercise by the equally-unclassifiable Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke, has the look of a world that just barely has its act together. Populated by demolished buildings, flooded homes and displaced lives, Zhang-ke's Fengjie, like Pedro Costa's Lisbon, is a post-apocalyptic zone where people wander like ghosts in the rubble.
A surprise 11th-hour entry and Golden Lion winner at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, Jia's latest fluidly surveys the landscapes that have been continuously changing in Fengjie since the initial days of construction on the Three Gorges Dam in 1994. A manifestation of the last century in and of itself, the Three Gorges project was initially conceptualized in 1919 and survived over 70 years of protests and economic fumbles before Li Peng, the man partially responsible for Tiananmen '89, gave it the final go-ahead. And yet, Zhang-ke's tone is neither accusatory nor judgmental; the film is a documentary with two fictional beings roaming around in its periphery.
We first meet Han Sanming as he arrives in Fengjie, stoic as he watches a complimentary magic show put on by the men who paid for his voyage. Realizing the Three Gorges project has submerged his home, Sanming goes about locating his wife and daughter whom he hasn't seen in the 10 years since he left to work in a Shanxi coal mine. His brother-in-law informs him that she has found work further up the Yangtze River and that Han must wait for her to return. In the meantime, he takes to manual labor for a demolition company to keep up his room and board.
Equally displaced, though certainly on more stable terms, Shen Hong (Jia mainstay Zhao Tao) begins searching the industrial zones of Fengjie for Gao, the husband she hasn't heard from in two years. Imploring an old friend of her husband's, she only locates him after touring through his current haunts, including an outdoor dance club overlooking the Fengjie Meixi Bridge. Shen asks for a divorce within an hour of reuniting with her husband; the Three Gorges Dam looms largely in the background. A native of Shanxi himself, Jia noticeably has ties with these characters, both of whom are in a constant state of attempting to reconnect with their past.
While documenting the progress of the Three Gorges project, Zhang-ke also seems to be showcasing how aesthetically archaic this civilization is. Men swinging their sledgehammers to some unacknowledged rhythm, walls and buildings suddenly crumbling to the ground, and random tightrope walkers all find their way into the strange texture of the Fengjie region, but it all seems like a natural manifestation born from displacement and confusion. Shot beautifully by Jia's staple cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, the filmmaker's view of this flooded county seems just as alien as the view from the spaceships that intermittently pass by.
Only five films into his career, Zhang-ke has distinguished himself as one of Mainland China's most distinct auteurs, a provocateur of concept over language. Though perhaps not as undeniable as his masterworks (Platform, The World), Life nevertheless carries the strange honor of being the director's most accessible work simply due to the fact that its characters actually, finally stumble upon what they're looking for. Does this suggest a laissez-faire attempt at formula? Hardly: Like any great documentarian, Zhang-ke despises messages and is enthralled by the simple act of observing life. As the title infers, Still Life is all about these common people existing in a world that seems more and more unreal.
Aka Sanxia haoren.