PRINT November 2007


Jia Zhang-ke

JIA ZHANG-KE IS the moving-picture poet of the Chinese “economic miracle” and of the alienation, surreal conjunctions, wrenching displacements, broken family ties, wild hopes, and unfulfilled expectations that have come in its wake. A “Sixth Generation” moviemaker, he has, at age thirty-seven, five fiction features to his credit, the first four of which—Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), and The World (2004)—bore witness to the transformation of China over the past decade as it was happening and drew their energy, glamour, and pathos from the portrayal of youth. In Still Life (2006), his fifth, which arrives in American theaters this January, the major characters, like the director, are in their early middle age. They yearn to settle down, but the ground continues to be pulled—here, all but literally—from beneath their feet.

Still Life is set in Fengjie, a town on the Yangtze River that has been in an ongoing state of demolition since 2002 to make way for Mao’s dream project, the Three Gorges Dam. The town is an extraordinary soundstage, its wreckage yielding a metaphor more complicated and open-ended than the virtual reality of the global theme park in The World and giving rise to images reminiscent of late Cézanne—harsh jagged edges of crumbled buildings like charcoal brushstrokes; light as soft as that enveloping Mont Sainte-Victoire, here the result of granite and cement dust saturating the air. The shots are never labored; their compositions are all the more stunning for being captured seemingly on the fly, whether the camera is moving or at rest amid a landscape of rubble. The comparison to the Neorealism of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) is obvious, but Jia heightens our awareness of the documentary reality by underplaying the fictional drama far more than Rossellini—which doesn’t make the desire and loss experienced by Jia’s characters any less poignant or palpable. What we are seeing is the actual obliteration of a town by crews of workers, many of whom have lived in the very buildings they are bringing down with their pickaxes and sledgehammers. China’s economic “miracle” requires the destruction of the past and the severing of ties to its own history.

Still Life is composed of two stories, allowing us two perspectives on what is happening in Fengjie. The more dominant of the two, comprising what we could call the first and third acts, focuses on San-ming—played by Han San-ming, one of the core members of Jia’s stock company of actors—a coal miner from Shanxi (where Jia was born and where his first three features are set). San-ming comes to Fengjie in search of his daughter, whom he has never seen, and his wife, whom he purchased from kidnappers and who ran away from him some sixteen years ago. The only address he has for them is in a building already submerged in the widening reservoir above the Three Gorges Dam. While he tries to track them down, he gets a bed in a cheap rooming house—which is itself leveled during the course of the movie—and a job on a wrecking crew. He eventually makes contact with his wife’s uncle, only to discover that he has sold her as an indentured servant to a riverboat owner to pay his debts. Most directors would have milked this backstory for melodrama, but in allowing us to piece it together for ourselves from a few fragments of dialogue and from the way that both San-ming and his wife (whom we meet later in the film) seem to regard their circumstances—as sad but in no way out of the ordinary—Jia, if anything, intensifies the emotional impact.

Framed within the two sections devoted to San-ming is the more succinct story of Shen Hong, played by another Jia regular, Zhao Tao, more subdued here than in Jia’s earlier movies. (If you’ve seen The World, you will never forget her extravagantly plaintive quest for a Band-Aid in the spectacularly rocky opening tracking shot.) A nurse, also from Shanxi, she is searching for her husband, Guo Bin, whom she has barely heard from in two years. Her suspicion that he is having an affair proves true. Having risen in the managerial ranks thanks to his liaison with the woman running the Three Gorges project, Guo doesn’t argue when his wife asks for a divorce. If this section seems shoehorned into the movie primarily to show the exacerbation of class differences in the new China, it also contains two of Jia’s most stunning images: the new suspension bridge over the Yangtze lit up like a stream of gold against the night sky, and a glimpse of the Three Gorges Dam, splitting the river from the newly formed reservoir, in the sequence where Shen Hong tells her husband that their marriage is over.

Jia is a marvelously precise and inventive dialectician, and he builds his cinema from the meshing of opposites: daily life/theater, fiction/documentary, stillness/movement, to name the obvious pairings. Still Life opens on the crowded deck of a ferry on the Yangtze headed toward Fengjie. In a series of extended, handheld tracking shots, the camera weaves its way from stern to bow as if it were one of the passengers. Some of the men—the cohort on the deck is largely male—peer inquiringly into the camera lens, thus immediately establishing that they are “real” people, as opposed to actors trained to ignore the camera. Many are dressed in white undershirts, the uniform of laborers in southern China, and the closeness of the camera to them and their closeness to one another as they talk and play cards convey the sense that their easy camaraderie is of the flesh—of bare arms, shoulders, and necks—as well as of the spirit.

Among the passengers are several who keep to themselves, including a man who is standing in the bow, looking up the river. Although his back is to the camera, followers of Jia’s work might recognize Han San-ming by the distinctive shape of his head—a Cubist-like combination of curves and planes. He is probably the only actor in this sequence, which is made vivid by the spontaneity and small surprises of real life, and which is counterbalanced by the theatricality of the sequence that follows it. As the passengers exit the boat, some of them are corralled into a hangar where a magician is transforming paper into “euros.” The scam artists in charge of this bleakly comic, Brechtian spectacle demand that the viewers fork over their hard-earned money for the privilege of watching, but San-ming keeps his few yuan well hidden and quietly flicks open his switchblade when the barker tries to take it in lieu of cash. With these few strokes, Jia establishes the resilience and purposefulness of his leading character. Over the course of the movie, San-ming’s portrait is filled out and deepened by understated demonstrations of his loyalty and capacity for friendship.

Jia’s work is extraordinary in its binding of formalism and humanism. Still Life is an investigation of representation and its limits as well as an expression of the movement of hearts and minds. One can view the line of desire in the narrative as stretching between two photographs of San-ming’s daughter. The first, seen early in the movie, is a wide-angle class picture, in which her face is too small for San-ming to make out its details. The second, which his wife shows him much later, is a snapshot close-up. The girl herself, however, remains outside the bounds of the narrative and outside representation, save for these two photos. San-ming leaves Fengjie having reconnected with his wife, and their reunion strengthens his hope that, if he can earn enough money to buy her freedom, he will have a family again. The movie is thus shaped by activities and the landscape of daily life and, in fact, is divided into chapters named for small tangible objects—cigarettes, liquor, tea, and toffee—that can be exchanged in friendship or used as solace by the lonely. But the movie also evokes, through Jia’s gift for metaphor, a future that can only be imagined. The last image of Fengjie, seen through San-ming’s eyes as he leaves, is of a man walking a tightrope stretched between the tops of two buildings. Their concrete existence will soon be reduced to rubble; the aerialist’s courage will endure.

Still Life is the third movie (not counting documentaries) that Jia, working with cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, has shot on video, and it is the first in which he uses the medium in its own right rather than as a makeshift substitute for film. On one hand, this is a case of the technology catching up to the artist’s vision; the resolution of the new generation of digital cameras far exceeds that of the models used for Unknown Pleasures and The World. On the other hand, digital HD, with its uniquely undifferentiated focal range, is perfectly matched to the natural wonders and vast vistas of destruction of the Three Gorges region. Not to mention that small, flexible video cameras made it possible for Jia to mix documentary elements with fiction within Still Life and also to shoot a separate documentary almost simultaneously.

That work, Dong (2006), soon to be released on DVD, is an hour-long portrait of the painter Liu Xiao-dong at work. The documentary is divided into two sections; the first half is set in Fengjie, where the subjects of Liu’s panoramic canvases are the very wrecking crews that populate Still Life. (Jia then followed Liu to Bangkok, where he made a series of paintings of women who work in the adult entertainment and sex industries.) Indeed, Liu’s Fengjie paintings are so interconnected with Jia’s movie that Han San-ming poses as a worker in one picture, raising the twin questions of what it means to paint from life and at what point an actor, performing the work of a character, becomes the character. I suspect that what most fascinates Jia in Liu’s work is its unabashed eroticism, and it’s probably not too much to claim that the sensuous images of men in Still Life were made possible by Jia’s looking at his subjects through Liu’s eyes.

If Dong functions primarily in its relation to Still Life, Useless (2007), Jia’s documentary on China’s clothing industry (which made its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month), is a rare balance of form and fact. The movie details three radically differing workplaces and modes of production: assembly-line manufacturing, handmade haute couture (by designer Ma Ke), and the kind of inexpensive individual tailoring that capitalism, whether in China or elsewhere, has rendered all but obsolete. The relations between art and industry and between labor and capital that Jia evokes apply in arenas other than the rag trade. Thus the title Useless, adopted from the name of Ma Ke’s exquisite clothing line as a sign of solidarity with her art, and of the irony that is its necessary condition.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.