After a decade and a half absent from American screens, Jia Zhangke’s 2006 docu-narrative fusion Still Life has had a restoration, just in time for Jia’s latest documentary, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, to make the festival rounds. Shot on high-definition digital video, Still Life takes place in Fengjie, a county in China’s Chongqing Municipality undergoing a rough transition with the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Jia utilizes his coal-mining brother, Han Sanming, as the protagonist to tell this docudrama, fabricating a search for his wife, Missy Ma (Ma), and teenage daughter against a very real backdrop of demolition and construction in Fengjie.
“Present-day society doesn’t suit us, because we’re too nostalgic,” Brother Mark (Zhou) states before urging Sanming to call his cell phone so they can listen to his ringtone. Television show theme song “Shanghai Beach” softly titters over the two men’s meal, with all the rich memories it brings. Constantly imitating his idol Chow Yun-fat, Brother Mark is obsessed with his own nostalgia just as much as Sanming, who pines for the family he left behind over a decade ago.
In contrast, the second act of Still Life follows Shen Hong (Zhao, Jia’s longtime wife and muse) as searches for her past so she can be free of it. Abandoning the partial documentary, Jia sprinkles in his staple alienlike sci-fi elements throughout her journey to find her husband, who has been missing for two years. Along the way, she meets figures that may or may not be involved in Sanming’s search: a young boy singing a popular old tune, a 16-year-old girl looking for work near Sanming’s wife’s old plot of land, and a woman called Missy who works with Shen Hong’s absent spouse.
What exactly is progress when people are constantly pulled back by their pasts? While Sanming’s only wish is to see his family again, Shen Hong yearns to forget. As she hunts for her husband, buildings that launch themselves into space are juxtaposed with the real, tangible “innovation” of the Three Gorges Dam – innovation that’s destroying the homes of the people of Fengjie as the Yangtze River rises. Here, Jia’s cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai, shoots the old buildings of Fengjie like a crime scene, with rusted buildings that bleed bright red and deep scarring along factory walls. Is this the past we want to preserve?
The building of the Three Gorges Dam, while in some cases beautiful, has displaced a large amount of Fengjie’s people, forcing them to leave their longtime homes and scrounge for money to get by. In contrast, on the other side of the Yangtze, people are thriving, dancing on rooftops, drinking wine, and watching the lights of the beautiful new bridge glow in the evening (lights that need to be turned on by a phone call order). In Still Life, with progress comes change, and it doesn’t care if you are ready for it or not.
Still Life is available now as a virtual cinema release.
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