February 4, 2007
Still Life, 2006
Perhaps what is most striking about Jia Zhang-ke's latest digital feature, Still Life, is its unexpected maturity, a marked evolution away from capturing the sad, eccentric tales of youthful indirection and cultural anachronism of contemporary Chinese life under an often contradictory, dual economy system that defined his earlier films towards a more somber - and classically humanist - portrait of anonymous, uprooted lives lived in the (un)certainty of state-sponsored phased extinction along the margins (and bowels) of China's profoundly transforming economic and physical landscape. Composed of two parallel stories of familial absence - a coal miner named Han San-ming searching for his estranged wife and teenage daughter (whom he has never seen) in a now submerged Sichuan village that had been demolished during the first phase of an ambitious, ongoing Three Gorges Dam project (envisioned by the late Chairman Mao Zedong), and a woman, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) seeking contact with her husband, a politically connected civil servant who has been sent to the village of Fengjie by the government to oversee the demolition project and has not returned home in two years - the film is a serene, breathtaking, and elegantly realized, if seemingly aesthetically depersonalized, panoramic tale of displacement, exclusion, and marginalization. That is not to say the Jia's recurring themes of the breakdown of family, the paradox of alienation in the most populous country in the world (a generational phenomenon that Jia allusively attributes to the government's instituted one child policy during the 1970s in his magnum opus Platform), the profound social polarization caused by the ossification of the state economy (in favor of opening certain market sectors to free enterprise), and the erasure of cultural identity in the face of globalization have been omitted from the film's aesthetic vernacular. Rather, Jia's brash, idiosyncratic touches of everyday absurdity - so integral to his meticulous (and implicitly political) illustrations of the contradictions of contemporary Chinese life (and particularly reflective of the cultural and generational intimacy revealed in his quotidian observations) since the country's formidable emergence into the world market - have been narratively tempered and relegated to the anecdotal interstices of offhanded humor (most notably, in sequence featuring a rock band featuring the lackluster choreography of visibly out of place hip hop dancers, in the image of Chinese opera-costumed performers playing with portable video games as San-ming observes the inclement weather from a window, and in the whimsical image of derelict structure that transforms into a launched rocket) in favor of a more contemplative exposition on an amorphous and faceless human condition in the wake of traumatic, if seemingly inevitable (and socially necessary) process of modernization.
Jia's more allusive, poetic, and subtler approach to illustrating the social repercussions of the country's rapidly expanding economy is perhaps best exemplified by his use of consumerist-themed chapters such as "Cigarettes", "Tea", and "Toffee" throughout the film - conventional goods in an international free market trade and examples of global corporate branding (as in the case of the ubiquitous White Rabbit toffee candies) - as the characters' fragile, connective tissues that continue to bind the characters (through the tactile reinforcement of their consumed consumer staples) to their absent and estranged loved ones: the cardboard from the box of a now-defunct cigarette company, Mango, that contains the former address of San-Ming's wife that is now located at the bottom of the Three Gorges Dam, the box of tea that Shen Hong retrieves from her husband's abandoned locker, San-ming's polite offers of cigarettes to his newfound friends and colleagues at a boarding house populated by migrant workers, the White Rabbit toffee that San-Ming's wife offers him as he broaches the subject of the possibility of a future life together (a tender overture comically - and quintessentially - interrupted by the unexpected razing of a derelict building in the background). However, in exploring themes of estrangement, cultural disconnection, and forcible uprooting, Still Life diverges from the rough hewn cultural testaments of Jia's earlier films and converges towards the broader, artistic experience of diasporic cinema, particularly, towards Tsai Ming-liang's and (early) Hou Hsiao-hsien's expositions on spiritual displacement and pervasive sense of otherness. It is this departure towards the universality of a certain aesthetic convergence that ultimately tempers the gravity of the film's powerful and poignant observations of marginalized existence. Inevitably, what had made Jia's cinema so incomparable in its originality and cultural authenticity has, itself, become a reflection of the borrowed culture of globalization that he has incisively captured in all its dislocated idiosyncrasy: erasing the inimitable precision of an indigenous voice - and implicitly, its role as cultural witness to the trauma of China's rapid transformation - towards a certain anodyne resonance of an all-encompassing, cross-pollinated, human polyphony.