Still Life / Sanxia Haoren (2006, Jia Zhangke)

screened February 2, 2007 on Region 2 DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb If I spend some time I can find a dozen better stills than this Jia's best film since Platform.  I suppose I think so because it reverses the nagging trend that I observed since Unknown Pleasures, that his films were becoming more like Chinese sociopolitical magazine articles pitched to the global fest circuit without an evolving cinematic sensibility to enrich his theses.  Here, there seems to be less of a need to play news reporter, despite the obvious temptations to do so inherent in as monumental an event as the Three Gorges Dam Project and consequent obliteration of hundreds of communities in the area (think of a man-made Katrina multiplied by a factor of 40).  His camera endlessly roams the landscape, taking in as much of its inherent weird splendor as it can -- on a sensory level alone the film is overwhelmingly rich.  If Jia is neither overly assertive in trying to underscore a point with each scene as he had been at times in his earlier efforts, neither is he overly passive in just grooving on visuals.  There's a questioning curiosity behind his camera here that is very much alert and alive. To elaborate on this further I want to look more closely at a comparison that has been made with Jia's film, that of Chinese landscape scroll painting.

Shelley Kraicer's review touches on the film's evocation of Chinese scroll painting.  I want to make a clarifying point that this film does not exactly resemble a Chinese landscape painting -- Jia's impossibly deep high definition frames and at times garish use of foreground figures are in some ways less subtle than the relatively two-dimensional depth of traditional Chinese landscape art.  What does carry over from this storied tradition lies more in the realm of purpose.

Dating back to the 9th century, Chinese scroll paintings have almost always been a physical act of reconciliation and orientation of man and nature.  These paintings, often featuring overwhelmingly vast or dense landscapes of an almost monolithic grandeur, challenge the viewer to find his or her own place within them, usually through surrogate figures embedded in the work, or in pockets of habitable space surrounded by sprawling wilderness.  Regarding these paintings, the question always comes back to "where and how does one live" within the wilderness of the world -- which one can extrapolate to mirror the wilderness of one's mind.

I see Jia's cinematography in this film functioning in a similar way.  Each shot, not just the wide landscape shots but the panning shots of interiors, seems to ask the question of how one can possibly live in such a place, both physically and mentally. With his talent for staging surprising moments of humanity within imposing, alienating environments, Jia plays with the same polarity of inviation and foreboding employed by the great landscape masters.  It is in this way that Still Life deserves credit for carrying on a longstanding artistic tradition using the latest technology in a new medium, validating not only that tradition but also the potential of cinema to preserve and deepen our sense of human existence.

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