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Still Life

Still Life
New Yorker
2006 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 108 min. / Sanxia haoren / Street Date November 25, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Tao Zhao, Sanming Han
Cinematography Lik Wai Yu
Production Design Jing Dong Liang, Qiang Liu
Film Editor Jing Lei Kong
Original Music Giong Lim
Written by Jia Zhang-Ke, Na Guan, Jiamin Sun
Produced by Tianwan Wang, Pengle Xu, Jiong Zhu
Directed by Jia Zhang-Ke

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It's not often that a movie depicts the transformation of an entire landscape, but that's what we see in Still Life (Sanxia haoren), a docudrama filmed in the area behind China's massive Three Gorges Dam project. The massive government dam system has uprooted 1.5 million people and forced the destruction or relocation of large towns in the area to be flooded. Director Jia Zhang-Ke went to Fengjie to make a documentary about a painter, but was so fascinated by what he saw that he immediately changed his plans.

Still Life tells the story of two people who come to the Yangtze River region impacted by the dam. Poor miner Han Sanming (himself) is in search of a wife who left him sixteen years before, when his teenage daughter was a baby. His old neighborhood is already under water, and the only relatives he can find initially refuse to help. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) is an attractive nurse who arrives from Shanxi to contact her husband and find out why he simply abandoned her two years before.

Fengjie has become more than a little like the Wild West. The city bustles with activity but everyone has plans to relocate. A scooter taxi driver cheats Sanming by delivering him to an address he knows to be underwater. His new landlord won't accept the fact that he must evacuate; workmen climb buildings to painting markers showing how high the waters of the Yangtze will eventually reach. Sanming takes a job demolishing buildings and lives with a rowdy work gang that engages in fights with rival work crews. Although they appear to own nothing but the clothes they are wearing, many workers carry cell phones.

Meanwhile, Shen witnesses a citizen group denouncing a local communist official about promises not kept. She visits an archeologist hurriedly digging before thousands of years of history are lost to the rising waters. Arriving at a hilltop restaurant, a busy bureaucrat is upset that the nearby giant bridge is not illuminated. An assistant uses his cell phone, and a moment later the bridge bursts into light. Digital communication works wonders for progress, but it helps neither of our searchers find their lost mates.

Jia Zhang-Ke's lead player is a real miner acting under his real name. But Still Life uses unusual, expressive visuals for editorial comment. The camera pans among the passengers on a ferry boat, creating a mural effect not unlike traditional Chinese painting. Shen walks by a woman and her crippled husband standing in poses similar to 'people's art' from the Cultural Revolution. The film's four chapters are marked by the signs for Tobacco, Liquor, Toffee and Tea, all of which were rationed under the old system. TV programming with images of Chairman Mao are still viewable, but the workers are more interested in elaborate action films and worship the superstar Chow Yun Fat.

Jia Zhang-Ke indulges a number of surreal moments as well. Sanming observes a trio of ancient Chinese princes playing with handheld computer games. Digital effects are employed to show a tightrope artist making an absurd walk between two condemned buildings. Both Sanming and Shen witness an overflight by a flying saucer, an image that might express the reality-warp represented by the damming of the Yangtze: if entire cities are flooding, what will happen next?

The most talked about visual is the sight of an entire building suddenly launching like a rocket and lifting off into the sky. In his interview Jia Zhang-Ke talks about the absurdity of the strange tower-like structure left standing after the rest of Fengjie has vanished: it no longer seemed to "belong" to the landscape. The launching of the ugly building might also represent the popular rejection of the corrupt officials that built it. Still Life is about social change on a massive scale.

New Yorker's DVD of Still Life is an acceptable transfer of this beautiful HD production. Over three hours of programming have been encoded onto the single disc, which results in a transfer that's not as sharp as it might be, although it's still very attractive. In a lengthy interview Jia Zhang-Ke explains that the digital format enabled him to control the color values, giving his picture a rich green-blue look overall. The soundtrack features a dreamlike score by Giong Lim and a number of romantic, exotic Chinese songs.

As an extra, New Yorker has added Jia Zhang-Ke's entire short feature Dong, the docu project that initially brought him to Fengjie. Painter Liu Xiaodong is seen arranging demolition workers as models for one of his artworks. He delivers some photos and condolences to the family of a worker killed in an accident. The camera follows the artist to Bangkok, Thailand, where he paints a similar multiple-portrait mural of a group of beautiful young women. One of the models leaves for the country to visit her family, who may be in danger due to severe flooding. Dong is a worthy co-feature to Still Life, which was awarded the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Still Life rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Additional film Dong (70 min), Director interview, trailer, booklet essays, downloadable PDF press kit.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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