Still Life touches upon all the problems surrounding the controversial issue of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam but it only presents short glimpses of this reality, like colorful splashes of paint onto a palette: we see the young sixteen year old begging the outsider to take her away and find a job for her as a maid in a big city, panels indicating the phases of demolition, the word "demolition" painted outside people's residences, workers pulling down constructions, land compensation, relocation and myriads of hints at the inside stories of the people: helplessness, cynicism, acceptance, nostalgia.
The plot is very simple: a coal miner coming to the Three Gorges in search of his wife, whom he hasn't seen in sixteen years and a woman in search of her husband, whom she hasn't seen in three years. The human stories, set against the background of the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River, are fleeting, fragile, ethereal. The characters' journey is both physical and psychological. They both have traveled from Shanxi province in search of their wife and husband but their journey is also a journey into consciousness, nostalgia, loss and the past. Besides, it is also a crucial step before a new future. Along with the nostalgia and the lingering on what is lost, there is also a constant need to make decisions and move on, which is what the characters do. We, spectators, follow the characters at the same time as we/they make a journey into the Three Gorges. The connection between the characters and the landscape is obvious. The journey is not only into the characters' past but also a hint at the past of the Three Gorges, at all the villages which have been pulled down and at those who are about to disappear. The sense of loss in the characters' lives is unmistakably connected to the Three Gorges, to that which is already lost and to what is about to be taken away.
The film is definitely a beautiful and poetic reflection on time. The coal miner, Han Sanming, keeps the address of his former wife written on an old pack of cigarettes. When a young boy asks him what they are, he replies that they used to be the best brand of cigarettes sixteen years ago. The boy says he is too nostalgic, and to this, Han Sanming answers gravely that "we all remember our pasts". Yet Still Life is not only about time lost. There are also celebrations of the present. Han Sanming's determination to try again with his ex-wife is a note of optimism and hope. Various scenes in the film also show villagers dancing, enjoying a singing performance, where the camera lingers on their expressions of joy and enthusiasm, a clear celebration of life.
All the films I've seen about the Three Gorges and the Dam share a strong emphasis on the visual, arguably because the gripping power of the landscape cannot make it otherwise. Still Life is not an exception. One of its signs of distinction, which greatly accounts for the beauty of the film, is the way in which it is shot. The motion of the camera is always very slow and contemplative. It moves along the river banks as well as along objects and characters' faces in a fashion similar to that of a ship moving along the river. This slow, balanced, contemplative motion also recalls the movement of water, and brings to the viewer notions of fluidity, transformation and renewal. The background of the Three Gorges and the Yangzte is always there. Many takes show the contrast of the characters' insignificance against the overwhelming vastness of the landscape, and this is also done with objects. As Han Sanming contemplates a 10 Yuan note, the close take of the note is again set against the background of the Gorges. To all this must be added the attention to detail: the humanity of people's conversations, the taste of local Sichuan people, the colors, the contrasts. To me, Still Life is not only a cinematographic accomplishment. It is also evidence that people still remember, at this very important moment in time, the Three Gorges and its people.
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