Few filmmakers are in the position of a traditional 19th century novelist nowadays, having a large scale view of at least a fragment of our world, and then rightly using an extensive approach in their art. One of the conclusions you could draw from the Tromsö Festival selection of 2007 is that this unique (brand new and still very traditional) chance is right now the Chinese artists’ privilege. Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) made by Zhang Ke Jia shows well that this epical approach in a certain place and in a certain time is not just the authentic one, but it may result in a masterpiece. The particular event which he is able to definitively catalyze an ancient type saga is the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, a project which involves the forced moving of 1.4 million village-dwellers in the area. The mega-project was begun in 1993 and might be completed in 2008. Everything what happens in Still Life has meaning within these premises: with enormous concrete monsters in the background, and demolished old homes, spectacular ruins all around.
Nevertheless if you concentrate on the numerous spiritual layers of Zhang Ke Jia’s film, the spirit of epical mightiness, the ‘western feeling’ is just one of the components. Nevertheless after watching Still Life you really feel like meeting with a classical western of the most complex type: a mixture of bitterness, melancholy and a dubious tribute of human power and civilization. From this respect everything in Still Life is deliberately made oversize: too large, too detailed a picture, too heavy a fate, too beautiful a landscape, too big a country with too harsh changes, too many peopled involved. But — and this is another spiritual component of the film — all these, being so big from our human perspective, and from here and now, are so vulnerably small from a distance.
Distance in Zhang Ke Jia’s film can be interpreted in many ways. When UFOs appear at certain points of the film on the broad Chinese horizon, then ‘distance’ from their perspective means that all this happens (with all the human tragedies in the front, and with the $22.5-billion investment in the rear) only on a little and pitiful planet, which is one among the million similar orbits in the Galaxy. But you may interpret the same metaphor in a more transcendent way: the saga from eternal perspective is just a tiny epigram, especially if the dimension of time is also involved. And time is obviously involved, and not just as the factor of the quick changes when the New dramatically replaces the Old. Time also means history, for example when, just for a glimpse, a group of people appear on the scene in medieval clothes, playing cards in a very contemporary way, as if they were ancient gods representing the continuity through the thousand years of misery in the life of human generations.
These generations just accept to be chased from their homeland, deprived from any shelter, cut from their family by the always changing authorities, ideologies, by a changing and still constant central will. That is the point why Still Life is so far from any western, even from the saddest specimens of the genre. A large scale Western is always ‘a pathetic saga about the big and changing world’, being created right now and never before. Still Life is ‘a pathetic saga about the big and changing world’ — where changes come and go. And where changes arrive, millions suffer. This is what ‘still life’ means in China from the forced labor at the Great Wall till the forced evacuation at the Three Gorges Dam, and from empires and revolutions till the spectacular triumph of capitalism. Still Life is the virtual standstill of the never ending painful changes. From the saga-teller’s view it might be a western, from a UFO’s perspective it might be a post-modern piece of absurd, and through a Chinese native eye it is really a Still Life: timeless moving, timeless suffering. And in this respect ‘timeless moving’ has meaning in more than one layer of the film. Moving can refer to our tiny planet’s astronomic motion from cosmic perspective, from UFO’s view. But there is moving in history, and present-day economical and sociological shifts in the life of the country. And there is also a precisely depicted micro-cosmos hidden within different macro-cosmoses: the moving of real people.
They are moving in a literary sense: the film begins with herds of men and women leaving the old place for a new one, seeking a new job, new dwellings, sometimes seeking a new family. Zhang Ke Jia makes it clear: when these ones arrive, other ones depart. In the same place there are jobs lost, dwellings demolished, there are families broken. And this slow but permanent wandering of a million people may seem to be a still life for the ones looking down from an eternal distance. Stepping closer, one can see in the moving mass the moving individual.
In the beginning of the film we meet Han Sanming, the coal miner from the Shanxi province. He arrives on a ferry, and looks for his ex-wife, Missy. He has not met her for sixteen years. Staying on to work in the demolition projects, Han waits for his wife to appear. He has got nothing more than his patience. In the second ‘micro-cosmos story’, a young woman, Shen Hong, arrives from Shanxi as well and is also looking for her husband, a construction executive. They have not seen each other for two years. In the film, searching for husband and wife is a tedious activity, always with new problems emerging. And despite of all this misery and all of the wicked accidents both of the searchers are successful in the end — if success means just not to be lost in the chaos of the changing world. But the final results of their quest are different. For the middle class woman it means the chance of a civilized discussion about divorce. For the poor man and poor woman it means a vague chance of a new start. The wife, who used to escape from his husband, and the husband who used to pay money for his wife according to the tradition, seem to be close to each other now. The woman is just a sold property, but also a human with her emotions. She wants to go back now, but she cannot. She has got a new master and her former husband feels obliged to repurchase her from this man. He will work hard, and may do it. There is hope in the world.
It is probably a rare situation. Both of the plot-lines suggest that Chinese women nowadays are in the position of command if a delicate family-problem must be solved. In the case of the city-dweller female it is easy to accept. In the case of a poor semi-slave it is a surprise. It is rare now that a family sells the daughter to be a wife, and even more unique situation if the wife considers herself being sold. Zhang Ke Jia’s film shows the case as shockingly inhuman, and still an almost forgivable fragment of the vanishing tradition. And even this helpless woman has got the power to make a man search, to struggle, and to be patient for her. There is not just hope in Zhang Ke Jia’s world, but in a similar way of some western filmmaker colleagues: hope belongs to the female.
Still life is the sixth film of the relatively young, 37 year old director. No wonder that Zhang Ke Jia deals with the changes in China, or the effects and interpretation of these changes almost in all of his former films too. He also seems to be conscious of the fact that there is the westerners view on China, and a Chinese view on the effects of the West. If there were any former doubt, Still Life makes it clear that Zhang Ke Jia is not a man of pure instincts. Every picture of the film is precisely planned, all cuts are accurately timed. It is a saga without anything meaningless. It is a strict masterpiece of an artist who is aware not only of his homeland’s history but also the history of cinema.
By the way, the Chinese title of Still life can be translated A Good Man From Sanxia, which definitely refers to Bertolt Brecht’s play A Good Man From Sichuan, especially because the plot does literally take place in Sichuan/Chingkuang. And remembering the ambiguous end of the play, Zhang Ke Jia’s UFOs go up into space just like Brecht’s descend the Gods. So Gods in the drama, UFOs in the film: both are probably scared in the end. In Sichuan there was nothing to learn from them. Zhang Ke Jia gives them a chance for a second excursion. Old place, new time, Still Life. Have they learnt from us at least?