The Good People and Changing Times
In Still Life, the background is more important than the foreground. Director Jia Zhangke has created a movie using China's massive Three Gorges Dam building project as its backdrop. A man named Han Sanming (played by, well, Han Sanming) is visiting the region looking for the wife who left him and who used to have residence there in the town of Fengjie. Later in the movie, a second protagonist appears -- a nurse (Zhao Tao) searching for her husband, who works on the site.
Both journeys prove challenging as the dam building project has significantly changed the surrounding landscape, most notably by steadily raising the water levels, which will cause the towns that have existed there to be permanently flooded. How the two main characters fare on their missions is less significant than what they encounter along the way -- demolition teams deconstructing the area, workers in dangerous conditions, and families preparing themselves for displacement. They are people getting by (the Chinese name of the movie literally translates to, "The Good People of the Three Gorges"), caught between the conditions of the past and the jolting insertions of modern progress.
Jia's intention does not appear aimed at enraging the viewer nor at evoking deep pity. Instead, his film is observant (there are many beautiful shots, as his camera slowly pans across the gorges, the bridges, and the old buildings) and acts as a record of the inevitability of change, even ones mandated not by nature but by the government. Yes, there is a sense of injustice given -- once in a while, TV ads are ironically shown promoting the benefits of the dam; relatives of injured workers complain about compensation -- but the feeling is one of resigned acceptance, as the project is depicted with a sense of forceful forward momentum.
In showing us this situation, Still Life brings up a contrast to the Western mentality -- whereas the American way might be to rise up and make a stand for one's self, the tone here is distinctly Chinese. The people understand what they have been given, and they do everything they can with it. In this way, the story of the main characters fits in with what is observed around them -- both of them adapt to their new situations and make the best of what they now have to work with, akwardly greeting the invading future. (A companion piece, Dong, also directed by Jia, was shot alongside Still Life and also partially covers the environment of the Three Gorges Dam.)
(Release by New Yorker Films; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.