Monday, 22 December 2008

Still Life

An ephemeral landscape, always changing; the light, glowing, as statues living as monuments to the perseverance of the human spirit, chip away at the image of the past in the restless pursuit of industrial progression and financial gain. Never asking why, or stopping for a second to take in the sights, to savour the still life that suspends them in air like the tightrope walker in the film's final scene; who stands above the narrative, detached from it, watching like the alien anthropologists that descend in their spacecraft to link these two disparate characters across disconnected planes of time and space.

The observer: the watchful gaze of the camera as a surrogate eye, both impressionist and documentarian, conveying the real, as it is, as it happens, and yet abstracting, fragmenting; discovering new ways of looking at old things in order to glean some indecipherable meaning from within them. "Without them?": the question that hangs over these characters; the shifting thoughts and desires, the subjects and compulsions; which drives the urge to make right what was previously wrong? These are the spectres that lead our characters into this world of manmade ruin, where the filmmaker finds drama in its crumbled walls, decayed vestiges and half-sunken residences that peak, fleetingly, as if gasping for one final breath of air from the fierce flow of a rolling river, which, soon enough, will submerge these once-mighty relics, cementing them in time.

The film's opening sequence establishes a tone and an atmosphere that will develop throughout; a scene of quiet reflection on the Yangtze River, introducing us to the pensive coalminer Han Sanming on a boat bound for the Three Gorges region of the rapidly dissipating town of Fengjie. Here we begin the exploration of director Jia Zhangke's quietly compelling Still Life (Sānxiá Hăorén, 2006); an extraordinary work of enormous atmosphere and great natural beauty, about characters disconnected; in search of the past in a town in which the past is literally being levelled to make way for the future, and where the people we meet on life's lonesome journey fail to alleviate our struggle, acting only as markers; like the inanimate objects that we leave in our wake that remind people that we were here, that we existed.

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

Through this entrancing scenario, Zhangke is able to comment on the fleeting nature of time and existence; of the co-existence of two completely different characters arriving in this location at the same time and for similar reasons, though never once interacting. The symbol of the town and how these characters adapt to it also allows the filmmaker to form a more pointed commentary on the politics of contemporary China; in particular the sense of corruption and resulting violence that has been allowed to escalate and eventually destroy these grand historical settlements that have been inhabited, visited and documented in countless works of art and literature for many centuries past.

In this sense, it is a film of ever shifting perspectives; not simply in the emphasis on two separate characters, but in the specific way in which Zhangke is able to move so seamlessly between the poetic and the political, the abstract and the natural, so that the film feels like a kind of restless combination of Andrei Tarkovsky's great masterpiece Nostalgia (Nostalghia, 1983), in which a homesick Russian poet explores an ancient Italian village that holds the secrets to a haunted past, and Michelangelo Antonioni's unsung documentary film China (Chung Kuo – Cina, 1972), which recalls the notion of a film crew entering forgotten pockets of reality and creating a contemporary portrait of the world as it is (as it existed) at that point in time.

Nostalghia directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983:

Chung Kuo – Cina directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1972:

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

The thematic associations to these films - which are concerned, primarily, with the notions of memory and place - remind us of the longing, yearning melancholy of these characters and their own situations. Where each pensive look and glance beyond the landscape, at these human beings that exist on the periphery of the narrative, amidst a world that moves to the syncopated rhythms of sledge-hammers on stone, establish the psychological motivations that force these same protagonists to cling to what might ordinarily be seen as the insignificant leftovers of lives previously made vacant.

As the worn and weary bodies of demolition teams, dripping sweat and over exhaustion, set about deconstructing the final remaining signs of life from this fast-becoming ghost town, Zhangke is able to use these same allusions to the films of Tarkovsky and Antonioni to express the significance of this place, Fengjie, as a representation for something greater in scale; where the physical (as in, the physicality of the human body in contrast with physical embodiment of the place itself) meets the political, this world of capitalism and corruption. These themes are perfectly established in the film's early sequences, following Han Sanming's arrival at Fengjie and his initial interactions with its inhabitants.

As the character wanders off the boat and out amongst the throng of tourists and travelling workmen he is immediately coerced into attending a backroom magic show. Here, the "magician" promises to turn blank paper into cash, but only by fleecing the pockets of his unsuspecting audience. The scene is important for three reasons; firstly, in establishing the world of Fengjie and the borderline illegal activities taking place behind closed doors. Secondly, in further defining the determination of the character of Han Sanming, who, when faced with the threat of having his possessions stolen by the organiser of this group, watches, waits, then quietly pulls a flick-knife as the scene cuts to black. Finally, in introducing the character of Brother Mark (Zhou Lin); a periphery figure who befriends Han Sanming and enlivens him with his wide-eyed enthusiasm and John Woo posturing, becoming, in a sense, the presentable face of "young China" personified: dirty-dealing, underhanded, erring on the wrong side of criminality, and yet honest, genuine, good-hearted and kind.

There are a number of scenes throughout the film that continue this thread of the corrupt, capitalist society as a microcosm of contemporary China; an idea perhaps most apparent in the presentation of the character of Guo Bing (Li Zhu Bing). Here, or at least within the film's earlier scenes, Guo Bing becomes an almost metaphorical presentation; an enigmatic mystery at the heart of both strands of the film's narrative who will only become a true, fully-formed character, in the traditional sense of the word, when he is located by his wife Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) in the second part of the film.

The eventual meeting between Shen Hong and her elusive husband leads us, for the first time, to the dam itself; the great divide between them, as well as a symbol for the future of all concerned.

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

On completion: The Three Gorges Dam, 2006 [photographer unknown]:

By focusing specifically on two separate characters (though with a clear emphasis placed on the first), the film allows Zhangke to look at both the complexities of human relationships and the transient nature of our existence. As a character, Han Sanming begins the film as a void; unable or unwilling to interact with his surroundings or these people seemingly beyond his understanding. As a character, he fits perfectly into the tradition of characters from previous Zhangke films - such as Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) from Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, 2002) or Qun (Wang Yiqun) from The World (Shìjiè, 2004) - in the sense that, despite his apparent reservations or inarticulate nature, he ultimate proves himself to be entirely committed to his quest for answers and understanding; entering this condemned city and forging friendships and relationships that we believe in completely.

The film is also interesting in the way in which it grants the audience an outsider's perspective on this place - the Fengjie as it exists (or did exist) in 2006 - where the definitions of reality have become the stuff of science-fiction; an incredible notion illustrated by a rogue UFO or a bizarre piece of architecture uprooting itself and ascending to the heavens. Zhangke describes these moments as "an allegory of happiness: as elusive as their [the characters'] dreams of benefiting from these great changes" He explains; "I think the UFO and other special-effects shots are an extension of what I did in The World. With the speeding up of the transformation process, especially in the last two years, the main aspects of Chinese life have become absurd, surreal."

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

We can see this ideology and its obvious juxtapositions throughout the film, with Zhangke attempting to show the reality of the situation with the uncomplicated, unaffected DV images of cinematographer Lik Wai Yu, which capture without commentary and yet, in attempting to show the world in all its naked truth and harsh actuality, can only succeed in turning the natural vérité of life into something incredibly abstract or weird. It is an amazing contrast defined by the director himself as "the mixture of the ancient and the modern, the ethereal and the physical"; a philosophy that helps to transform the film into a kind of eerie travelogue of images and ideas developed around the themes of displacement and dislocation.

Here, the particular emphasis on the landscape and the exterior space that defines these characters' internal struggle - combined with the probing, existentialist questions that lead them to coalesce in this vanishing town in the restive pursuit of answers - creates an atmosphere and evocation of a certain time and place that is entirely tangible, if no less unreal. In this sense, the film becomes a quest for the soul to be reunited with the body (or vice versa); or for the ghosts of the past to be laid to rest, buried alongside centuries of survival in this town destroyed by greed.

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

It is telling that both central characters from Still Life have travelled to Fengjie from their home province of Shanxi; the hometown of Zhangke and the setting of many of his films, notably his debut picture, The Pickpocket (Xiao Wu, 1997). In the first thematic strand of the film, Han Sanming arrives in Fengjie to trace the wife and daughter that abandoned him sixteen years earlier. Through his investigation we learn the circumstances of their relationship; that she was a mail-order bride, unhappy with her situation, who took the opportunity to leave and never look back, and who now must face the questions and accusations of a man - who in all fairness was as much an innocent as she herself - attempting to find a teenage daughter (his own mark on this tragic still life) perhaps unaware of her father's existence. In the second thread of the narrative we're introduced to the character Shen Hong, a nurse, also from Shanxi, this time looking for her husband. Initially, it seems that Shen Hong is also looking for some kind of reconciliation; that like Han Sanming, she too has been wronged by a former lover and is looking for answers to the questions that have been such a burden during her husband's two year absence. However, as she likewise wanders this vanishing town - enlisting the help of an archaeologist, Wang Dongming (Hongwei Wang), a fitting compatriot for a character literally unearthing the secrets of the past in search of answers - we realise that her reasons for entering Fengjie are somewhat more selfish, and indeed, more befitting the commentary on the contemporary China that Zhangke is slowly moving towards.

The character Wang Dongming is another of these "periphery figures", an archaeologist who spends his days sifting through the reminders of the past - again, like the two central characters - and who lives in an apartment in which the notion of time has become a literal line traced along the wall of his living room.

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

Though the English translation of the title, "Still Life", does well to establish one of the main threads of interpretation that is explored throughout - chiefly, the central theme of existence and a search for the past - it is the literal translation of the title from the original Mandarin, Sānxiá Hăorén, or "The Good People of the Three Gorges", which really underlines the broader, socio-political aspect of Zhangke's creative and thematic intentions. However, the film could have easily have been called 'A Place on Earth', with full reference to Jean-Luc Godard's esoteric drama "Keep Your Right Up" (Soigne ta droite, ou une place sur la terre, 1987); another great film about the struggle of existence that places the emphasis on the act of creation (or in this instance, destruction); as characters search for someone or something to belong to (a place of their own, be it physical or metaphorical). Godard described his own film as "a two-way travel between sky and earth, between comic and experimental, between shadow and light", and although the term comic should (in this instance at least) be replaced by the more applicable term "cosmic", the description could just as easily apply to the film of Zhangke. It is within this contrast between shadow and light, between the sky and the earth and more importantly between (the image of) man and the landscape (again, the central theme of the aforementioned Antonioni) that the power and the beauty of Still Life is eventually revealed.

Soigne ta droite directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1987:

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

In his introduction to the region 2 DVD released by the BFI, Zhangke himself defines the inspiration of the film as follows: [he writes] "once I walked into someone's room by accident and saw dust-covered articles on the desk. Suddenly it seemed as if the secrets of still life fell upon me. The old furniture, the stationary on the desk, the bottles on the window sills and the decorations on the walls all took on an air of poetic sorrow. Still life presents a reality that has been overlooked by many of us. Although time has left deep marks on it, it still remains and holds the secrets of life" This sense of both the past and the present being defined by the seemingly insignificant objects that map the progression of our lives, leaving clues to the mad jumble of emotions and experiences that litter our journey, is further expressed by the chapter-headings, which not only illustrate how the complexities of life can be defined by the possession of something entirely inanimate, but how these apparently innocuous objects serve a greater need in "greasing the wheels" of progress, both politically and sociologically. These objects, "Cigarettes", "Liquor", "Tea" and "Toffee", come to define our social interactions, allowing for the creation of an open forum for discourse or the building of relationships between groups of individuals banding together against this environment of conflict and devastation.

Still Life directed by Jia Zhangke, 2006:

The mark of time, like the watermark that will be left on the mountains and hills as construction of the dam forces the river to rise and the town to become lost to the cause of progress, is another important theme of the film; expressed, not just through the emphasis placed on the characters' search for their absent partners and the mark that they've left on the lives of one another (emotionally speaking), but through the two brief scenes in which we see the discussions between the local residents and those who make the decisions. These scenes illustrate the greater mark that the dam will leave in forcing these people to uproot themselves, to migrate, to follow the water downstream, down river, to a new place to begin a new life with those same memories intact.

Here, the presentation of this world is far from conventional, with Zhangke offering the depiction of a natural landscape with all the surreal and dreamlike abstraction of a post-nuclear holocaust. It is this quality of the film that stands out above all else: the power of the experience; of characters stumbling into situations, witnessing something, translating it and immediately recognising what it is that is being communicated or conveyed. It is a great film, in the sense that it creates characters and scenes that resonate on both an emotional and intellectual level, with great performances, haunting music and stunning cinematography. However, it is an even greater film for what it communicates as a work of ideas; for the particular way in which the film captures this time and place so vividly, becoming a work of real historical significance.

This aspect of the film, and the power that it can have for an audience with the right frame of mind, is best defined by Zhangke himself, who writes; "I entered this condemned city with my camera and I witnessed demolitions and explosions. In the roaring noise and fluttering dust, I gradually felt that life really could blossom in brilliant colours, even in a place with such desperation."