STILL LIFE Written and directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, with Han Sanming and Zhao Tao. A Mongrel release. 108 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 25) at the Royal. Rating: NNNN
As a piece of art, still life shouldn’t work. It has almost no narrative, the dialogue is sparse – made almost incoherent by laughably bad subtitles – and the characters never grab you.
But visuals alone can make a film incredibly riveting. Ostensibly, Still Life tracks Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) and Han Sanming (played by an actor with the same name) as they return home to Fengjie, near the site of the Three Gorges Dam, which is under construction, to find their spouses.
But that doesn’t really matter. Still Life is really about changing China, the building of the dam a metaphor for the price the country is paying for capitalist progress.
Everything – the buildings, institutions, relationships – has to be destroyed before the dam can be completed. One million people are displaced, and many die as the region is flooded.Jia, along with cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, creates monumental images. The film opens with an extended tracking shot of Han taking the ferry from Sangxi, where he works as a coal miner. The river is hopelessly polluted, the sky a yellow smear of smog.
Scores of workers – wearing no protective clothing, of course – take sledge hammers to old stone buildings. Hammering echoes as the film’s persistent soundtrack.
Many sequences are set up as tableaux; people appear to be posing in alignments designed to look artificial. It’s reminiscent of the way Fellini designed his Satyricon, specifically the museum scene that formed the backdrop to a character’s voiceover on the meaning of art.
But Jia is the anti-Fellini. Where the Italian gave us lush, colour-saturated beauty, Jia presents grim pictures of sweaty workers toiling, visiting prostitutes and glumly taking their meals.
And there is no voiceover and maybe three pages of dialogue in the entire film. Some sections, like one in which workers sit scarfing back noodles, look like... well, still lifes.
If you like action, stay away. This is a non-commercial film. But this strangely stunning movie – winner of the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival – is a must-see for anyone who cares about the state of the art.