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Jia Zhang-ke's luminous new film Still Life transplants his familiar themes to one of China's most contested cultural, economic, and ecological symbols: the Three Gorges Dam.
At the helm of Chinese cinema's sixth generation, Jia Zhang-ke, along with cohorts such as Wang Quanan, Li Yang, and Zhang Yuan, has produced acclaimed documentaries and features which expose the plight of the migrating Chinese masses coming to grips with a radically changing society under the Open Door Policy.
As in his earlier works such as The Platform and The World, Jia's latest offering, Still Life, explores the conflicting moral and social values in the market economy and the troubling divide between urban and rural China.
Set against the backdrop of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Still Life snubs the architectural prowess of China's largest manmade structure and paints an intimate portrait of the emotional loss of those who loitered in the spatial vacuum.
Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, Still Life centers on the plight of coal miners and laborers in the historic city of Fengjie in Sichuan Province. The ancient town was where the legendary heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei -- waged wars. The area's breathtaking scenery and precipitous cliffs are immortalized in the works of Tang dynasty poets Li Bai and Du Fu. "I assumed Three Gorges only has a rich regional culture, but once I got there, I realized the local life can fully represent the dilemma of modern China," he says.
The construction of the Three Gorges Dam was beleaguered by decades of political feuding (many critics still think it will unleash unprecedented environmental disasters and become a security target in wartime). First proposed by Sun Yat-sen, the construction of the world's largest dam was later debated during the governments of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It was finally green-lighted by Jiang Zemin.
The towns in the Three Gorges are now forever erased from the map, but what remains unchanged over the centuries, Jia says, is the sense of camaraderie that prevails in the jianghu culture often depicted in the Chinese novels. He is touched by the tenacity of the locals' will to survive despite living in the harshest conditions. "Children would paddle on the streets and make small businesses. Even they know one should never give up."
The director looks away from the political and socio-economic impact on the one million displaced residents who were ordered to leave their ancestral homes and relocated to places as far as Canton and Liaoling provinces. Instead, he focuses on the micro. "Still Life is not a political commentary or a critique of the economy; it's about the awakening of human consciousness," says Jia.
Still Life took shape in 2005 when Jia filmed Dong, a documentary which chronicles his artist friend Liu Xiaodong's travels to the Three Gorges and Bangkok to paint local construction workers and a group of Thai women on canvas. During the filming, a laborer died in an accident on the job and a model was killed in a flood in Bangkok. "People in Asia may have very different lifestyles, but their sufferings are all the same," he says. Jia then decided to make a feature film set in the half-empty town amidst the exodus of its residents. "There are many different realities in China right now," he says. "Most films capture the glories of big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. But in the small cities, there's another China that is unknown to the outside world. I want to tell their stories instead."
The Chinese title of Still Life literally translated as "good people of the Three Gorges," a dedication to the voiceless masses in China. Jia's cousin Han Sanming, who worked in pits for more than a decade, plays the male lead. Han was the director's childhood best friend, but Jia realizes they have less and less things in common over the years, after he left the small town Fanyang to study at the Beijing Film Academy. "It really upsets me that we don't have a common language anymore. The lives of thousands of people like my cousin touch me deeply; that's why I have to make this film for them," he says. Jia points out that out of China's 1.3 billion population, one billion are peasants and laborers. "They should not be marginalized; they form the core of the social fabric." Since Han has no residency in a city, he could not apply for a passport to attend the awards ceremony in Venice. "The poor are treated as second class citizens in China," laments Jia.
The plot of Still Life operates through two characters: a man and a woman, each in search of their lost love in the ruins of the Three Gorges. The two never cross paths and Jia thinks it does not make the story incomplete or dilute the dramatic tension. "Traditional storytelling can't illustrate the complexity of contemporary China anymore. It's very hard to make sense of the many changes happening around you these days," he says. Jia believes "loneliness and melancholy prevail in modernity," and letting the two characters bond will make the story appear contrived. "Modern Chinese people have become more self-centered and individualistic. One person doesn't necessarily understand the pain of another."
While writing the script, Jia drew on the ancient principle of yin and yang. The director believes the two stories complement each other and reckons that the characters are still connected, as if by a dotted line.
Contoured by allusive emotions and landscape, Still Life is a celluloid amber which freezes the last glimpses of China's wasteland, an ancient site rich in cultural relics now submerged under water. The film is peppered with haunting images of migrant workers toiling in concrete rubble along the river, the last traces of enthused tourists cruising the ghost towns, and the rusty skeleton of a shipyard -- testimony of the area's bygone industrial glory.
Against the tumult of explosions and fluttering dust in the mass demolition, the characters have to decide what to salvage and leave behind before the impending deluge. A nurse's hope dims as she searches in futility for a missing husband in the shipyard he once worked. At the film's enigmatic end, the estranged couple waltz in front of the gigantic new dam -- a concrete monster which casts its image across the Yangtze River.
Similarly, the film is punctuated with seemingly outdated cultural markers, most notably the chanting of outdated 80s Canto-pop and a young laborer's hilarious mimic of Chow Yun-fat's signature gangster look and gestures. The juxtaposition of these elements may appear anachronistic, but it illustrates the pervasiveness of Hong Kong entertainment in the mainland. Jia poignantly creates an abstract time capsule to preserve the sentiments of those caught in a borrowed time and space. Born in 1970, Jia himself grew up watching Hong Kong gangster films and TV dramas. "The 1980s were the time when many Chinese households started to own televisions and radios. It was the transition from the Cultural Revolution to a new era of mass media," he explains.
Jia's films often capture the bleak reality of the impoverished and underclass living in China's slums. The Chinese authorities accused him of tarnishing the image of provincial cities, thus discouraging foreign investment. Jia finds these accusations unfounded. "Artists are not there to serve those in power, nor to advocate economic or political agendas," he says.
The local authority sent a man to spy on the crew, for fear that the film may expose the dark side of the mass migration and embezzlement of relief funds. "We shot the film in August, the hottest summer days. That guy couldn't stand the blazing heat and eventually wandered off," he chuckles.
Date Posted: 5/25/2007