Lost in the Movies: Still Life

Still Life

First things first, it’s very hard to capture the life of Still Life in a still. There were numerous images that caught my eye while watching the movie, and when it was over I tried to go back and pause certain moments to create a screen-capture on my computer. No dice, though I finally settled on the enticing image seen above. The problem was that all of these impressive visuals contained the essential value of movement, either of the camera, within the frame, or both. One particular sequence seemed ripe for pictures: a quiet scene in which characters dance on a rooftop at dusk, with the half-constructed metropolis blazing in the background and a yawning, unilluminated bridge stretching towards the hilly horizon. Yet each time I paused the simple panning motion, the still did not capture that visceral pull of the visuals, the interruption of a simple sweep somehow stripping the shot of its power.

Still Life is a Chinese film from 2006, directed by Zhang Ke Jia, a young director with a slew of films on this master list (Still Life is the first of his work I've seen). The movie tells two stories, both revolving around characters coming to a submerged valley village called Fengjie - the massive, decades-long Three Gorges Dam project has left the old town underwater, while around the rising Yangtze River a flurry of construction and demolition unfolds. Both characters - Sanming (Sanming Han) and Shen Hong (Tao Zhao) - are looking for long-lost spouses. Both, in their separate ways, are baffled with this strange world, a fusion of the confused fragmentation of modern life and the disarrayed, displaced remnants of the old.

Shen Hong, a woman whose husband lives and works in the area but barely keeps in touch, clearly comes from a comfortably middle-class background. Well-dressed, quiet, guided through town by a vaguely embarrassed young man who seems to be an archeologist and knows her husband, Shen Hong is made uneasy not by any physical discomfort but by a sense of spiritual dislocation. While the landscape seems cacophonous and toxic through Sanming's eyes (at one point, clad only in slacks and a flimsy undershirt, Sanming pauses while knocking down a building, only to see a troupe of scientists in protective suits scanning the area for dangerous chemicals), to Shen Hong it is the inscrutability, the melancholy mystery, of the place which seems so threatening.

Her story is sandwiched between the two blocks of Sanming's tale, which the film opens and closes with. This structuring is slightly awkward - when we realize that we're back with Sanming, Hong's story seems almost like an afterthought - but it does give us the impression that Sanming's situation is somehow more stable and universal, and that he and those like him will outlast those like Shen Hong. This conclusion is furthered also by the different outcomes of the two stories. While Sanming initially comes to Fengjie as an outsider, he eventually adapts, finding friends and work. He even tracks down his wife, and faces the prospect of possible reunion with her. Shen Hong, meanwhile, never seems at home in this environment and when she finally meets up with her husband, she informs him that she has another lover and the couple agree to divorce. (It's unclear if this information is true or if she's only trying to hurt her spouse, whom she's recently discovered is unfaithful. If the latter, the plan backfires: Shen Hong's husband is the one to amicably suggest a formal split).

Throughout both segments, the world on screen is constantly in motion. Sometimes this is due to pans and lateral tracking movements (seldom, that I can recall, to freer movements of the camera within space). Sometimes the viewpoint is still but the objects on screen are moving - one building collapses, another rise off the ground on rocket boosters in a dreamlike aside, as if Fellini's immobile 8 1/2 set finally took wing. Even if it seems like we might be settling down for a relatively still moment we're usually surprised. When Sanming and his rediscovered wife embrace in a spare, gutted apartment, the wall knocked out so that we can see the entire cityscape sprawled out before us, the static tableau is suddenly interrupted by the collapse of an entire tower behind them.

Contrast this with Shen Hong's sad reunion: she and her husband cross under a sort of jetty-bridge on which couples are dancing to music broadcast over a loudspeaker (and while I haven't mentioned it, this is a movie filled with music, filling the air subtly rather than foregrounding the soundtrack). This couple, whom we presume are materially more stable than Sanming and his wife, are placed in an environment constantly in flux, both the camera and elements within the scene are in perpetual motion. The two central figures come together, dance briefly themselves, and then depart in different directions unable to maintain their footing on the carousel. Meanwhile, the other couple, while face to face with awe-inspiring destruction, are able to view this collapse from a safe distance, their feet on solid if fleabitten ground. Nothing is certain (Sanming goes back home for a year, hoping to earn enough money to buy his wife back from service on a boat, where she is a virtual slave - and he warns his friends, and us, that the mining work he is returning to is very dangerous). But somehow we sense that Sanming is, however tentatively and difficultly, moving forward while Shen Hong's movement is free of any direction whatsoever.

Much more could be said about Still Life, but it appears to be a film which grows with familiarity - both with the film itself (there's a lot to take in on just one viewing) and with the film's context (no doubt the history of the area and the project which the movie documents add a great deal to its understanding). And yet there's also something to be said for experiencing it as a "stranger" - a position which echoes that of the main characters. In this film, one can distinguish the "strangers" - in town for a purpose, sensitive to their surroundings, with fleeting connections to the place despite a governing unfamiliarity - from the "tourists" whom we glimpse briefly in the opening and occasionally throughout. Jia positions us as strangers in this film, giving us a rarely privileged yet distanced view, which is one to savor. We are reminded of this fact when we step back and, like tourists, try to take a snapshot only to discover that this dynamic, ever-shifting world cannot be captured so easily. A single image will not do it justice; Still Life must be experienced with the benefits of time and motion.

(originally linked on The Sun's Not Yellow)

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