Still Life (2006)

A stunning work of geographical and existential malaise and one of Jia Zhangke’s finest docu-fictive accomplishments, gorgeously shot along the Yangtze River in Fengjie County as a man and a woman separately search for their estranged spouse amid the human impact of the Three Gorges Dam’s construction.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review #2,048

Dir. Jia Zhangke
2006 | China | Drama | 108 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Han Sanming, Zhao Tao
Plot: A town in Fengjie county is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. A man and woman visit the town to locate their estranged spouses, and become witness to the societal changes.
Awards: Won Golden Lion (Venice)

International Sales: Xstream

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Society, Modernity
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No


Unexpectedly winning the Venice Golden Lion, Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is on hindsight one of his finest accomplishments. 

It is a great example of his brand of docu-fictive cinema—contemplative, at times slow and meandering, gorgeously-lensed, and most importantly, documenting a changing China in the face of globalisation and modernisation. 

With Still Life, the Sixth Generation’s most revered filmmaker gives us a stunning work of geographical and existential malaise as he trains his eye on the human impact of the Three Gorges Dam’s construction on a soon-to-be-demolished town in Fengjie County. 

His approach is simple yet breathtaking: by telling two separate stories of a man and a woman searching for their estranged spouse, Jia foregrounds the county’s slow demolition and eventual flooding.  Workers chip away at slabs of concrete, while nearby along the Yangtze River, Chinese tourists flood the area on ferries. 

Such is Still Life’s natural and crisp cinematography, and the use of non-professional actors (the two leads, Zhao Tao and Han Sanming, are Jia’s regulars), that one might mistake it as a pure documentary. 

“You’re a nostalgist.”
“We can’t forget who we are.”

Well, in some way it is, for truth is often stranger than fiction—Jia cheekily acknowledges this as an artist in two bewildering moments where he employs ‘sci-fi’ iconography to jarring effect. 

Or perhaps it shouldn’t have come as surprising because when people dressed in hazmat suits intrude your town periodically, it might as well be on Mars. 

Plot takes a backseat in this one, and despite its slow pacing, Still Life will reward viewers who dare to take the plunge and trust Jia to steer them into a place of empathy, where separation, relocation, destruction and commodification can never hope to interfere. 

In that sense, the title ‘Still Life’ is about trying to achieve calmness of heart amid a reality of despair—that final shot of a man in perfect aerial balance tells us all we need to know about Jia’s stunning cinematic enquiry. 

Grade: A+


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