Ironies abound in the latest by China’s greatest contemporary cinematic chronicler Jia Zhangke: There’s politics in every one of cinematographer Yu Likwai’s superbly composed HD frames, but it’s feel that the former is after. And in the half-drowned town of Fengjie – the victim of the Yangtze river Three Gorges Project and capitalism as well as being the new home of rural Shanxi construction worker Han (Han Sanming) – the feeling isn’t good.
Han is looking for his estranged wife and daughter; while, in another part of town, as if to show missed-connections are no male preserve, nurse Hong (Zhao Tao) is looking for an absentee husband. Meanwhile, the Yangtze flows on; they both end up gazing out to it, in search of answers to questions wider than the immediate.
Arguably, ‘Still Life’ marks a change for Jia, with a sharpening focus reflecting the translation of his observational eye from the particular modes, dilemmas and adaptations pertaining to his home province of Shanxi to the even faster-changing realities of the more industrialised Chinese heartland. But here – from the opening pan around the rolling community of the ‘immigrants’’ boat through the film’s mini-odyssey among the lived-in spaces taking occupancy during the hastening phases of deconstruction and erection – what is unchanged is Jia’s unique ability to let us participate in people’s experience.
In ‘Still Life’ the director’s assurance is such that the barriers between documentary and fictional film are made to seem an irrelevance; you may find his film’s intimations of commonality – what we share as human beings – will surprise and move you in unexpected ways.