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Against the backdrop of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam engineering project in the declining city of Fengjie, a poor mine worker from Shanxi, Sanming, arrives in the dilapidated town in the hope of finding his unknown daughter and his ex-wife, Missy Ma, who left him nearly 16 years ago. But in the meantime, a nurse from Taiyuan, Shen Hong, also comes to Fengjie in search of her husband who's been missing for almost two years. Though Shen and Sanming are two perfect strangers, their parallel quests for their beloved missing ones signify the urgency to retrieve what lies hidden in the past, as man is dwarfed by an ever-changing landscape which threatens to bury one's memories deep under water.Written by
Three Gorges Good People and the magic of perseverance
Reviewed at the North American premiere screening Tues. Sept. 12, 2006 at the Varsity 8 Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
I was lucky enough to be at TIFF screenings on Monday when it was announced that Sanxia Haoren was going to have a special one-time screening as a last minute addition to the Visions programme of TIFF 2006. I think the online tickets went fairly quickly and the theatre was packed with a considerable overflow of film writers & critics who had been unable to squeeze into the industry screening.
Sanxia Haoren has been given the title Still Life for international release, but the original Chinese title would seem to translate simply as Three Gorges Good People and it is in the vicinity of the dam's construction and the city demolitions and the people displacement entailed by it, that the film takes place. The film has a bookend plot of a miner Han Sanming (character's and actor's names are identical) who comes to the town of Fengjie to search for his estranged wife and child. The centrepiece story is that of a nurse named Shen Hong who is searching for her missing husband.
The dour faced Han Sanming is initially a cause of concern as it seems at the very start he is going to be swindled by tricksters on the river ferry but he soon shows that he can hold his own. We then think he is going to conned by a sarcastic motorcycle taxi driver who takes him to the location of his supposed house only for him to find it is now submerged under water. Things soon settle down for Han though as he finds lodging in a boarding house and work as a house demolition man on a crew with a brash young man who seems to have learned all his life lessons from the movies of Chow Yun Fat. Various humorous interludes (such as a young boy who sneaks cigarettes and roams around singing overly romantic songs which usually degenerate into an off-key screech by their end) and certain magic sequences (which I won't spoil) serve to bring comedy and wonder along the way. Several times the screen is seemingly chapter titled with the words "cigarette", "liquor", "tea" and "toffee", when these items occur during the plot, and any other meaning to this device eluded me. The journey of Shen Hong is similarly full of encounters with different characters on the way. I don't think the two stories actually intersected, but I may have been somewhat tired at this mid-way mark of TIFF as this screening went from 10:30 pm to 12:30 am.
The impression that the actors were perhaps simply playing versions of themselves was reinforced later in the week when I also caught the same director's documentary "Dong" which follows painter Liu Xiao-dong around locations at the Three Gorges Dam and it turned out that Han Sanming was actually one of the sturdy workmen that painter Liu was using for his models in a large multi-paneled painting of men. A blond-dye haired motorcycle taxi driver of Still Life makes a cameo appearance in Dong as well.
I found both of these films equally absorbing as they told stories of regular people in somewhat extreme life-changing situations and also that the 2 films complemented each other in a symbiotic way. Seeing one will enhance your appreciation of the other and vice versa. Both films are very deliberately paced but very lyrical and if you have an appreciation for slower paced film they are very rewarding. Also, if you did not have any concept of the magnitude of what is going on in the Three Gorges area, these films will give you a first hand view.
The director Jia Zhang-ke was not in attendance for the North American premiere, as he presumably was still in Venice celebrating his win of the Golden Lion for this film and 2 awards for the documentary.
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