Monday, April 02, 2007

Still Life

China is a strange country. Consider this.

Director Li Yu was told by the Chinese Film Bureau that her latest movie, "Lost In Beijing" (苹果, literally "Apple", after the name of the female lead role) could not be screened at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival unless she would cut about 15 minutes of the original version. Otherwise she might be facing the same five-year ban as was bestowed on Lou Ye for neglecting the directives of the Bureau on his film "Summer Palace". What the Film Bureau didn't want the "foreign friends" to see were some sexually explicit scenes (do those really exist in Chinese cinema ?), some scenes about gambling, scenes with dirty streets and scenes where one could see ... the Chinese flag. China, after all, is living the "Harmonious Society" dream and requires the entire world to believe that dream is true.


Venice. September 9 2006. The Awards for the Film Festival are announced and Chinese director Jia Zhangke steps down the stage firmly holding the Golden Lion in his hand for his fictionalized documentary about life in the Three Gorges Dam region, "Still Life" (三峡好人). Jia didn't have to make any significant cuts, as far as I know, yet he touches on prostitution, gang violence, bribery and ... dirt, piles and piles of dirt an debris, in which the remaining people still try to eke out a living by tearing down the houses and buildings that used to be their homes, before the entire place will be inundated by the lake building up behind the world's largest dam. It is not a harmonious society that we get to see in "Still Life", for sure, either, so why did this get past the Film Bureau ? The ways of that venerable institution are quite enigmatic, to say the least.

Did Jia Zhangke, torchbearer of the so-called "Sixth Generation" of Chinese directors , produce a good movie ? Yes, he sure did, and we all should be happy that it seems possible to make this kind of movies in China. We are far from the visual bravoure of Zhang Yimou's masterpieces, an yet maybe not that far, albeit in a totally different realm.

Jia Zhangke shows the thin storyline of two characters, both looking for their husband / spouse. Sanming has come from Shanxi to look for his wife and daughter which he hasn't seen for sixteen years. Shen Hong has come to tell her husband, whom didn't come home for two years, that she has found somebody else and wants a divorce. Their characters wonder through this wasteland, connecting with other people, survivors just like them, and gradually becoming part of the local scene of the quickly disappearing Fengjie. Shelly Kraicer had this to say about the way Jia Zhangke build up the movie:

Still Life incorporates a complex symbolic system that suggests possible meanings without fixing them definitively. Most prominently displayed are the set of four ambiguous symbols of consumption and enjoyment that the film underlines with titles onscreen: cigarettes, wine, tea, and candy. They stand in as replacements for the standard four household items (fuel, rice, cooking oil, and salt) that represent the daily necessities of life in a set Chinese expression. Jia’s update replaces survival with pleasures, even addictions. Those looking to find support for an ambivalent interior critique of the concomitant pleasures and dangers of turning cinema itself into a series of tantalizingly consumable items could do worse than start here.

I myself believe that the four items have less to do with pleasure and addictions as they have to do with hospitality. Those are items you would traditionally take in China whenever you go and visit chinese friends. Like the inhabitants of Fengjie are more and more becoming guests in their own life, so do Sanming and Shen Hong immerse in this micro-society, as guests, passing by, looked at with suspicion at first but gradually taken in.

Though the movie looks desolate and paints a very somber picture, there's a lot of humanity in the characters and their struggle for survival. Jia wanted to show how life works for them after all the camera crews were gone. From an interview with Jia in "Three Gorges Probe":

Jia: In my view, the time of biggest change in the Three Gorges area was 2000 to 2002, when the mass resettlement was really under way, houses were being demolished and people relocated. At that time the media, from inside and outside China, went to the area and bombarded us with images of the dam being built, houses being torn down and people being moved.

But then the media withdrew, and the Three Gorges, both the people and the place, were forgotten. Nobody cared about them any more. It was at that time that we went to the area. We were interested in how people there were living their lives, how they had been affected by the big dam.

What we saw, behind the scenes of the big project, were the problems and difficulties people faced after relocation. And the changes they experienced -- having their houses demolished and being resettled, with the construction of the dam going on in the background -- look a lot like changes being experienced by people all over China. And so, in a sense, the changes occurring in the Three Gorges area represent the changes taking place in China as a whole.

That the director still manages to extract a lot of beauty where no one would expect to find it anymore (and though the word "beauty" may be stretching the limits of the content of that word a bit) is to be considered no minor feat and it leaves us anyway with a movie that sticks to the mind and hope for more good work to come from a great director.

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