Friday, February 15, 2008

Fictional Documentations of Real Life

If anyone wants to make an argument for a national cinema, the first place to look is China and the films of Jia Zhang Ke. Although Jia's films certainly have universal appeal (and are criminally underviewed), they always seem unique and specific to the human condition of people native to China. Whether in his fiction films such as Platform (2000) and The World (2005), or in his astonishing yet-to-be-released documentary Useless that was one of the highlights of NYFF 2007, Jia is obsessed with the changing face of China and how the "advancements" are shaping Chinese citizens. His latest fiction film Still Life continues this trajectory, yet seems somewhat unsure of itself in its meshing of fact and fiction.

This is not to say that Still Life is a misstep for Jia. It is far from it. The main story follows Han, a coal miner, who is on a search for his ex-wife using an address from 16 years ago. The areas have changed since then and are in a constant state of flux with the creation of the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam is a real life project in China which will eventually become the largest hydro-electric power station in the world. In the meantime, however, Three Gorges has displaced 1.5 million people, including Han's family. As the dam is created, more towns are flooded and people are forced out of their homes. Working as part of destruction crews, many characters draw new water levels in the middle of buildings and prepare old homes and buildings for implosion. Many of these people have no place to go and no money to survive on. Three Gorges is pushing their lives to stagnation. Jia's camera ties all of the people together in some incredible panning sequences from the first shot in the film until the downtrodden, enigmatic conclusion. Han searches for his family and tries, just like everybody else, to redefine in his life in the midst of the urbanized growth that only leads to tragedy for the lower classes.

The narrative of Still Life wanders with its characters and the drifting flow is often times rapturous and blends nicely with the spirit of the characters, but Still Life frequently seems uninterested in its own narrative. Jia was shooting a documentary on Three Gorges at the same time he was making Still Life. While this might work to make the real elements within Still Life more profound, Jia's emphasis on the real takes away from the mystique of his narrative and make the film seem slightly unbalanced. The situation of the Chinese people is what most interests Jia and it is noticeable in the film's spare narrative. While Jia's own sense of movement, motivation, and devastation is so assured that Still Life is able to succeed, it could have been more sure of itself and worked as a stronger combination of fact and fiction. The lopsidedness made me want to see Jia's documentary on Three Gorges more than it made me want to follow its own narrative.

All the same, Still Life is a shockingly effective portrait of a world and a people with their past and futures dwindling away in front of their own eyes. Jia still manages to find hope in the unity and brotherhood between citizens. It may only be in finding this unity and working together for a stronger future that China can come to peace with the Three Gorges and prevent it from sucking life out of the people like the ash out of a burning cigarette.

by James Hansen

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