Drowning in Progress: Contemporary China, fluid yet unstable, in Still Life

J. Hoberman – The Village Voice

Copyright The Village Voice
January 15th, 2008 12:09 PM
The world’s oldest civilization is in some respects the world’s newest—which is why Jia Zhangke, the pre-eminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, could well be the most contemporary narrative filmmaker on earth.
Jia’s fifth feature, Still Life, offers an eccentric guided tour of post-apocalyptic Fengjie—the ancient river city largely flooded and partially rebuilt several years ago as part of the monumental Three Gorges Dam project. But the movie, which won the Gold Lion at Venice in 2006 and was shown at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is also an open-ended progress report. The filmmaker arrives as if he were an explorer reaching the edge of the frontier. Still Life opens with a slow, majestic pan over the passengers on a Yangtze ferry— the Chinese masses eating, gambling, dozing, hustling, and texting—as they pass by the new towers that line the shore. To entertain them, the Wuhan Magical Arts Troupe performs the trick of turning ordinary paper into euros and euros into yuans.
This sleight of hand is hardly the film’s only metaphor. For the most part, Still Life broods like a cloud over Fengjie, its displaced inhabitants, and new arrivals. There are two protagonists and a pair of parallel narratives. In one, a stolid miner (Han Sanming) comes downriver from Shanxi in search of the bought wife who left him 16 years before and the daughter whom he’s never seen. Han, a former coal miner, has played similar roles in previous Jia films, giving Still Life the sense of unfolding in an alternate universe. So, too, does the other narrative, in which a young nurse (Jia axiom: Zhao Tao) arrives in Fengjie to look for a husband who has been too busy making his fortune to stay in touch.
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