Still Life

Zhang Ke Jia
Tao Zhao, Sanming Han, Zhubin Li, Hong Wei Wang
The Setup: 
Life among those displaced by China’s Three Gorges Dam.

I am fascinated by what’s going on in China right now, with their intensely escalating economy, all based on the kind of fossil fuels the world is trying to find a way beyond right now, their incredible pollution, and the fact that the government is more than willing to sicken and kill off its own people if it means a bit more cash in the till. Then there’s also all the suppression of dissent and the fact that the US is trillions of dollars in debt to China, which could cut us off anytime it feels like it. A huge example of all this is the Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project ever undertaken on the planet, a dam three miles long, so large that, according to Manufactured Landscapes, when its first parts were filled it actually altered the rotation of the Earth.

The dam also raises myriad environmental and social issues, not least of which the million people who, so far, have been forced to abandon whole cities and move to higher ground. Many more people are expected to move as the project continues. And that is the setting that Still Life takes place in.

The movie has two main characters, but what it’s really about is everything happening in the background. This fellow Han comes to his old town to find his wife and to see his daughter. He has been away for 16 years working in the mines [another whole notorious Chinese social and environmental story]. He arrives in a city—imagine identical apartment buildings stretching up the sides of these gorges—that is methodically being demolished. Everywhere are buildings being slowly torn apart, and the entire landscape is skeletons of buildings and piles of bricks, huge gray river in the middle, under skies constantly milky-white with pollution. He first encounters his brother-in-law, who is not exactly receptive to his search for his wife. Going to the last address he has for her, he is taken to the side of the river. “See that little island? That’s your street,” he is told. His wife went to live somewhere else—they show him her location on the back of some currency, another temporary, commodotized item—and soon to be among the only places you can see the area in its natural state! He arrives at a rooming house, and we have a chapter title: Cigarettes. In the office of the hotel we see a guy on TV light a cigarette with a burning $100 bill. Han offers cigarettes to the guys in the office, one of them lighting it with a large piece of paper, like the guy on TV with the money. All the chapter titles going forward: liquor, tea, toffee, all refer to little commodities people in the film trade for friendship or to make alliances.

But it seems that Han is less than half of the content of the film, the bulk of which is made up of the strange sights and people he encounters—it IS called Still Life, after all. A boy of 10 comes in, steals a cigarette, makes blustery poses, then takes off again. Han finds a man in a bag, zipped up to his neck so he is powerless to move, lying in the middle of a pile of rubble. People in chemical suits suddenly appear, walking along and spraying the rubble with chemicals, ignoring all the people nearby. A bunch of young men come along, saying they want Han to help them come beat up another guy in the next village over. A crowd in a government office complaining that they aren’t getting the compensation others are getting for demolishing their homes and moving to wherever they can find. A sign being painted, 25 feet up a building, noting the water level when the project reaches stage three. The owner of the rooming house coming outside to find his house marked “Ok for demolition.”

And in the foreground are Han and Shen, two people looking for looking for their spouses in this world where everyone is moving somewhere. Shen comes on midway in, and we follow her search to find her husband, the one who gave her seven digits when phone numbers in the region have eight. She discovers that he is having an affair and the signs indicate that he would much rather if she would just forget him. She is constantly filling her water bottle from other people’s coolers, the irony being that even with all the water constantly surrounding them, none of it is useful to drink.

Han and Shen eventually find the people they’re looking for, in encounters very low-key and moving in a delicate way, but what stays with you afterward is just this world of people constantly on the move, everything around them in the process of being destroyed, nothing and no one permanent or reliable. It’s a smart way to make a movie about a social condition, and it leaves an eerie and unsettling impression.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re interested in what’s going on in China right now.