I just finished a film, Still Life, by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke, which tells the parallel stories of two people trying to find their relatives as a result of displacement caused by the Three Gorges damn project and development in southern China.
The actual Chinese title of the film (San Xia Hao Ren) literally translates to “The Good People of Three Gorges,” which hints at the content of the film, but “Still Life” would be a very fitting subtitle. It is a very visual, photographic film full of very slow pans and shots that are so static and quiet they literally look like photo stills. It only occurred to me afterward that the element of time makes films like this so much more effective than photo essays at capturing the true drawn-out drudgery of poverty. There is a terrible and misleading tendency in some works to glamorize the camarderie of menial laborers or the sometimes quirky makeshift trappings of poverty that is completely lacking here. The poverty in this film is not the “we’re poor but full of energy and find happiness in what we can” type that goes down easier and to some extent appeases our guilt a little. Instead, Jia avoids the “salt of the earth” archetype and shows poverty as an endless, back-breaking and monotonous grind in which a person is forced to risk his life for a bit of money.
He also shows a glimpse of the flip side of development in the second half of the film, but the success of developers is only spoken of and unseen, and the film for the most part follows the story of the rural working poor.
Be warned that this film is deliberate and almost infuriatingly slow-paced. There’re virtually no dramatic events certainly not the kind of soundtrack that tells you what to feel. The plot, one that is utterly without twist or gimmick, unfolds very slowly, and though each person’s journey is very important in their lives, the plot as a narrative device is subservient to the context in which it takes place. The real impact of the film comes from the accumulated force of the little details like the offhand comments made by incidental characters and small moments like the Euros-to-RMB magic trick at the beginning of the film, which pass without direct commentary.
I didn’t like Jia’s earlier film, The World, which deal with similar themes but felt a bit too forced in its unusual setting to me. The more involved plot drew my attention away from the social issues hovering near the surface. Still Life feels much more true.
It’s unclear what proportion of the cast are actually professional actors. A few of the main characters certainly are, but the flat, inscrutable expressions on the faces of some of the minor characters lack the clear intent to show found in the character acting I’m accustomed to. In fact, the idea for the movie came out of an hour-long documentary on a Chinese painter travelling to the Si Chuan area to paint (included on the DVD), and in that short you can see some of the sequences that were ultimately included in the feature film. In an interview (also on the DVD), Jia Zhang Ke states that within days of arriving in the Three Gorges area, he knew he had to make a film there.
There is also the excrutiating sequence when the painter visits the widow and children of a worker killed on the job during their stay. He brings them photographs of the man that they had taken, as well as brightly colored gifts for the children which seem entirely out of place in the damp grey room full of drably dressed poor people. One of the gifts is a neon pink Snow White backpack for the daughter. What a telling moment – out goes their livelihood and in comes Disney.
The gifts jog my memory of Nachtwey’s story of a man in southeast Asia who lived by the side of railway tracks, without property and without dignity. Donations poured in after viewers saw Nachtwey’s photos and the man was able to move his family into a proper room. Not to discount the impact of single donations, but both these incidents make me wonder if we’re really that simple-minded in our thinking. Instead of giving more support to organizations that attempt to solve the problem at its source, to curb the social ills that create these circumstances, we tend to focus on individual cases and on treating the symptoms, as it were. It’s like trying to patch thousands of burst water pipes. Wouldn’t it be better if we just developed a type of pipe that’s not so prone to bursting? But I suppose it’s an apt metaphor – the infrastructure of those old pipes is not so easy to disassemble and replace.
I initially meant to post a little paragraph letting you guys know about the film. Instead, this has turned into a good sized review with full-on soapbox action! But my long-windedness aside, you should really check the film out, especially since it’s, aside from a couple of incongruous computer effects, eminently watchable for photographers and filmmakers. (Some scenes seem to recall other movies – the end of Fight Club, the panning dinner conversation in Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract…)