Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2007 4:00 am 
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Offhand and astonishing

Though perhaps STILL LIFE/Sanxia haoren (the Variety reviewer thought so) is indeed primarily for the Jia devotee or the festival-goer (it's already been awarded the Golden Lion at Venice) and certainly it's totally uncommercial, it's a lovely, hypnotic piece of work, another haunting picture of the vast creation, disruption, destruction that is modern China from that country's most exciting and original younger-generation filmmaker.

Three are layers of irony in the title, because in the incredibly turbulent, ceaselessly active events on screen in this world of life that is anything but "still," the most amazing images slip by without comment. A construction boss on a rampart one evening cell-phones a technician and says, "The VIP's are here. Why aren't the lights on? I'll count to three; then turn on. One, two, three. . . and a huge bridge and arch are suddenly illuminated behind him. One of the two estranged couples the film follows to tentative reunions is talking with a vast city behind them and in the background a big skyscraper suddenly, silently collapses. There is no comment. It just miraculously happens. In the final shot, amid the debris of the Three Gorges where the world's largest dam will eventually displace 1.4 million people, Han Sanming (non-actor Han Sanming's actual name), a mine worker who's come to find his wife and daughter, who left him sixteen years ago, stands looking out at the urban landscape and a trapeze artist is quietly walking across a tightrope between tall buildings. Again, no comment.

Han Sanming can't find his wife right away and her brother doesn't trust him at first, so he stays for months, working with the brother in demolition. A perky young fellow, who quotes John Wu star Chow Yun Fat and imitates Hong Kong gangster gestures, befriends Han Sanming and they put each other's numbers in their cell phones--a contemporary pledge of solidarity that has a sad sequel later. The young fellow, who could easily have been one of the lost, hopeful young men in Jia's 2002 Unknown Pleasures, is lost in a demolition accident and gets a sea burial like the one accorded to Johnny Depp's character in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

Focused on the displacement of people for a vast industrial and engineering project, Still Life also contrasts classes--the humble working-class stiff who can make 50 yuan a day pulling down walls or 200 going down in a coal mine not knowing if he'll come back out, versus the handsome lady, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) whose estranged building magnate husband she wants to divorce because she's found a younger man. She has options; Han Sanming is simply drifting and lonely. And in the background for both, though, is the enormous turbulence and activity in which we see both protagonists as tiny helpless figures, their own lives indeed "still life" by comparison.

There's another unexpected, astonishing sequence of a fat rock singer, naked from the waist up like most of the Three Gorges demolition workers Han Sanming encounters and drenched in sweat. He sings of nostalgia for his youth, a time when everybody was happy, and old men in the audience shed tears while garish go-go girls gyrate: where does this fit in? This is another symbol of social upheaval. But what is really happening? Won't Chinese society have to return to its heritage of Mao and the Eighties aftermath chronicled in another of Jia's unwieldy masterpieces, the 2000 Platform? Perhaps the titles Still Life ironically points to the way people are frozen in isolation (broken couples, estranged children) and unhappiness (or quiet desperation) in a China that all the rampant economic progress both masks and perpetuates.

After his colorful land pointed but somewhat leaden 2004 The World/Shijie Jia Zhang-Ke has shown again as in Platform and Unknown Pleasures that he can touch and astonish. The human events are dwarfed by capitalist Progress in the new China, but people (after all, they are a zillion of them there) are still very much in the foreground. Still Life is an impressive, organic-feeling movie that refers to Jia's earlier films but, extraordinarily, seems to bring together both post-war Italian neorealism and the desolate urban landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Seen at the MI2 Hautefeuille in Paris, October 21, 2007.

Links to my other Jia Zhang-ke reviews here.

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