Still Life

Hong Kong/ People's Republic of China 2006

Film still for Still Life

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Fengjie, a town on the Yangtze River in Sichuan, under demolition prior to flooding for phase three of the Three Gorges Dam. Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi, arrives in Fengjie to look for his ex-wife Missy, a paid-for bride who left him 16 years ago; he feels a sudden need to see their daughter, now in her teens. He lodges in a decrepit inn and seeks out Missy's brother Ma, boss of a ferry service. He learns that Missy is working on a boat upriver. Waiting for her to visit Fengjie, he takes a job with a demolition crew.

Shen Hong, a nurse from Taiyuan, arrives in Fengjie to look for her husband Guo Bin, out of touch for two years. She finds that the industrial plant where he worked has been closed and hears that he has a new job with the demolition authority. She turns for help to Guo's friend Wang Dongming, working on excavation of Western Han artefacts uncovered by the demolition. Guo initially proves elusive, but Wang locates him the next day. Shen tells him that she has met someone else and wants a divorce. They part and Shen leaves on a jetfoil to rejoin her new lover.

Han hears from Ma that Missy is in Fengjie. They meet and form a new, sorrowful bond; their daughter works far away in Dongguan. Han approaches Missy's current employer and asks if he can take her back to Shanxi. The old boatman agrees, on condition that Han clears her brother's debt of RMB30,000. Han decides to return to Shanxi to earn more money in the mines and leaves Fengjie alone.


Jia Zhangke's wonderful film tells two parallel stories, both about individuals coming to Fengjie in Sichuan Province in search of long-absent partners. The setting is as resonant as the characters: Fengjie (much feted in classical poetry; parts of it date back nearly 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty) is being demolished to prepare for its impending inundation by the Yangtze. Plenty of earlier Chinese movies have looked at the human and social cost of the Three Gorges Dam (from Zhang Ming's Rainclouds over Wushan, 1995, to Yan Yu and Li Yifan's documentary Before the Flood, 2005, the latter also shot in Fengjie), but Jia's film is the first to rhyme the loss of a very ancient human settlement with the transience and fragility of human relationships in general. His title Still Life refers to both the remarkably sculptural ruins of the town as it's knocked down and shots of the banal everyday comestibles (such as 'Cigarettes', 'Liquor', 'Tea' and 'Toffee' - the film's four chapters) used as tokens of the characters' feelings.

Actually, the film is as much about motion as stasis: both protagonists have come a long way to reach Fengjie. The man, Han Sanming, is an impoverished coal-miner from Shanxi in the remote north, looking for the 'mail-order bride' who left him 16 years earlier, soon after the birth of their daughter. He's not seeking a reconciliation, but feels an acute need to see his child. The woman, Shen Hong, is a nurse from Taiyuan, also in Shanxi; she has come to find her husband, out of touch for two years, to ask for a divorce. (The husband Guo Bin and his friend Wang, the archaeologist who helps her, are also Shanxi natives.) The working-class man and middle-class woman have exactly parallel experiences: both have trouble locating the people they're looking for, both are embarrassed witnesses of local arguments and fights, and both make unexpected friendships. Both display an almost un-Chinese determination to sort out their emotional problems. And both see the same UFO streaking over the gorges.

The UFO is one of several elements in the film that point up the other-worldliness of Fengjie in its dying months; another is the real-life modernist monument to those forced to evacuate the region, which eventually takes off like a rocket. Like Jia's earlier films, Still Life is fundamentally naturalistic - closely observed, sociologically and geographically precise, featuring believable characters rooted in credible backstories - but this film follows 2004's The World in finding contemporary China more surreal than 'real'. Jia's constant subject is still the way that ordinary Chinese cope (or fail to cope) with chaotic times, but he recognises that the standard responses are often not enough. Sometimes you just have to gasp, as when a typical technocrat orders a vast new steel-span bridge across the Yangtze to be illuminated at night with a shout into his cellphone, or when a large tenement collapses without warning outside your window.

The film's Chinese title San Xia Hao Ren translates as 'Good People of the Three Gorges'. The echo of Brecht's The Good Person of Sichuan is deliberate, but the film isn't a political parable; it simply follows Brecht in asking what it takes to survive in a venal society. Jia doesn't do villains, at least not on screen; even the 'bad guys' (the local wideboy who styles himself after Chow Yun-Fat in A Better Tomorrow,Shen's errant husband Guo Bin) are seen as victims. The protagonists are equally subject to forces beyond their control, but their essential good-heartedness leads them to outcomes they didn't quite expect. The film's visual and tonal poetry also gives it an aleatory aspect. Jia senses a connection between the loaded setting and the vagaries of the heart, making this his most mysterious film - and his most poignant.


Jia Zhangke
Xu Pengle
Wang Tianyun
Zhu Jiong
Jia Zhangke
Director of Photography
Yu Likwai
Kong Jinlei
Production Designer
Wang Yu
Music Composer
Lim Giong
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011