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Jia Zhang-ke continues with his good work while becoming a little more accessible
harry_tk_yung29 November 2006
China's sixth generation director Jia Zhang-ke's recent Golden Lion winner at Venice is slightly more accessible to the general audience than his previous work, although Shijie (2004) has been heading generally towards that direction. Unlike Xiao Wu (1997), which is completely devoid of story or plot, Still Life at least has a story (in fact two) of sorts but, to Jia credit, stays away from the conventional Hollywood melodrama formula. The last thing we need is another Hollywood-look-alike movie made by a Chinese director who gives up what he is good at to impersonate a Hollywood director. There are already too many.

The story of the Three Gorges Dam begs to be told. Jia tells it from a micro, personal angle, by weaving two separate stories together, with the Three Gorges Dam project not just as a backdrop, but also as a subject of enquiry. In polarized contrast to the gorgeous tourism posters, Jia's camera shows the devastation along the Gorges in a way that almost reminds you of the ruins in Polanski's "The pianist". In the two unrelated stories, two people arrive in the same riverside town, a nurse looking for her husband who seems to have lost interest in her, and a coalminer searching for his wife who left him, taking with her their daughter.

These stories are told in Jia's usual minimalist style, but with pain sticking attention to details. Instead of the dialogue, it's the nuances, the body language, and even the framing of the shot that reveals. New to Jia's screen are moments of playful, surprising touches as if the director is saying "Hey, I can handle surreal too". The appropriate use of pop music from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland of China adds to the dimension and depth of the film.

True to his tradition, Jia films the life of ordinary people just as it is. The coalminer in Still Life is one in real life, and a relative of Jia. He even uses his real name Han San-ming. True to his tradition again, Jia uses only one professional actor, Zhao Tao, but she is so good that you can't tell her apart from the rest of the "cast" in terms of being an authentic, ordinary person that Jia might have just picked from a crowd in the street.

I miss Jia's earlier work such a Xiao Wu, for its uniqueness and detached, realistic depiction of lives of real people. On the other hand, I don't mind his introduction of conventional "entertaining" elements, so long as he stops before, way before, succumbing to the senseless scramble of the Chinese 5th generation directors to capture the Hollywood market. Many a soul has been sold for fame and fortune.
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Offhand and astonishing
Chris Knipp26 October 2007
Though perhaps 'Still Life'/'Sanxia haoren' (the Variety reviewer thought so) is primarily for the Jia devotee or the festival-goer (it's already been awarded the Golden Lion at Venice) and certainly it's totally noncommercial, it's a lovely, hypnotic piece of work, another haunting picture of the vast creation, disruption, destruction that is modern China from that country's most exciting and original younger-generation filmmaker.

There are layers of irony in the title, because in the incredibly turbulent, ceaselessly active events on screen in this world of life that is anything but "still," the most amazing images slip by without comment. A construction boss on a rampart one evening cell-phones a technician and says, "The VIP's are here. Why aren't the lights on? I'll count to three; then turn on. One, two, three. . ." and a huge bridge and arch are suddenly illuminated behind him. One of the two estranged couples the film follows to tentative reunions is talking with a vast city behind them and in the background a big skyscraper suddenly, silently collapses. There is no comment. It just miraculously happens. In the final shot, amid the debris of the Three Gorges where the world's largest dam will eventually displace 1.4 million people, Han Sanming (non-actor Han Sanming's actual name), a mine worker who's come to find his wife and daughter, who left him sixteen years ago, stands looking out at the urban landscape and a trapeze artist is quietly walking across a tightrope between tall buildings. Again, no comment.

Han Sanming can't find his wife right away and her brother doesn't trust him at first, so he stays for months, working with the brother in demolition. A perky young fellow, who quotes John Wu star Chow Yun Fat and imitates Hong Kong gangster gestures, befriends Han Sanming and they put each other's numbers in their cell phones--a contemporary pledge of solidarity that has a sad sequel later. The young fellow, who could easily have been one of the lost, hopeful young men in Jia's 2002 Unknown Pleasures, is lost in a demolition accident and gets a sea burial like the one accorded to Johnny Depp's character in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

Focused on the displacement of people for a vast industrial and engineering project, Still Life also contrasts classes--the humble working-class stiff who can make 50 yuan a day pulling down walls or 200 going down in a coal mine not knowing if he'll come back out, versus the handsome lady, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) whose estranged building magnate husband she wants to divorce because she's found a younger man. She has options; Han Sanming is simply drifting and lonely. And in the background for both, though, is the enormous turbulence and activity in which we see both protagonists as tiny helpless figures, their own lives indeed "still life" by comparison.

There's another unexpected, astonishing sequence of a fat rock singer, naked from the waist up like most of the Three Gorges demolition workers Han Sanming encounters and drenched in sweat. He sings of nostalgia for his youth, a time when everybody was happy , and old men in the audience shed tears while garish go-go girls gyrate: where does this fit in? This is another symbol of social upheaval. But what is really happening? Won't Chinese society have to return to its heritage of Mao and the Eighties aftermath chronicled in another of Jia's unwieldy masterpieces, the 2000 Platform? Perhaps the titles Still Life ironically points to the way people are frozen in isolation (broken couples, estranged children) and unhappiness (or quiet desperation) in a China that all the rampant economic progress both masks and perpetuates.

After his colorful land pointed but somewhat leaden 2004 The World/Shijie Jia Zhang-Ke has shown again as in Platform and Unknown Pleasures that he can touch and astonish. The human events are dwarfed by capitalist Progress in the new China, but people (after all, they are a zillion of them there) are still very much in the foreground. \Still Life is an impressive, organic-feeling movie that refers to Jia's earlier films but, extraordinarily, seems to bring together both post-war Italian neo-realism and the desolate urban landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Seen in Paris, October 21, 2007 at the MK2 Hautefeuille.
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Characters whose lives touch us
howard.schumann9 October 2006
This week China announced that about 300,000 more people than planned will be relocated as a result of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, bringing the total displaced to more than 1.4 million. The $22.5-billion US dam, a mega-project five times the size of the Hoover Dam, which has been heavily criticized by environmental and human rights groups, was begun in 1993 but will not go into full operation until 2008. The project's effect on ordinary Chinese is the focus of Jia Zhangke's latest film, Still Life, the surprise winner of the Golden Lion Award at this year's Venice Film Festival.

Set in the village of Fengjie, since submerged in water to make way for the dam, Jia's slow-paced, class-conscious effort dramatizes the life of villagers who have been forced from their homes, had their traditional way of life destroyed, and sent to live in cities against their will, often having to resort to begging and garbage collecting, or even prostitution to stay alive. The film, along with its companion documentary Dong, tells overlapping stories of the emotional trauma of local people caught in the dislocation at Fengjie while a new village is being built.

In the first sequence, Han Sanming, a middle-aged coal miner from Jia's home Shanxi province, arrives on a ferry to look for his ex-wife, Missy after sixteen years of estrangement. All he has to rely on is an address given to him many years ago, completely unaware of the demolition and flooding in the area. Avoiding local swindlers, he tracks down Missy's uncle who tells him that his former wife is now in Yichang with his teenage daughter. Staying on to work in the demolition projects, Han engages in conversations with other workers who complain of the low wages they are receiving (60 to 70 Yuan a day) and want to return to Shanxi province with Han where they can earn 200 Yuan a day working in the dangerous coal mines.

In the second story, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse arrives from Shanxi as well and is also searching for a missing person, her husband Guo Bin, who left the family two years ago. She is aided in her search by archaeologist Wang Dongming but it is uncertain what course of action Shen has in mind when she reunites with her husband. The film, however, is not about the story line but about the landscape and the atmosphere, playfully charged by the CG appearance of a UFO and a spaceship that takes off in the middle of the rubble.

In Still Life, Jia demonstrates to the world how one of China's most gorgeous areas, one that brings in 1.3 million tourists a year, has become a scene of squalor. Jia says: "We all know there is major change going on in China and I wanted to get more people to know what's happening. I will continue to make films along these lines and explore the problems of the weaker social classes." If Jia's future projects contain the unmatched cinematography, compelling story, and characters whose lives touch us as Still Life, we have much to look forward to.
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Still Life touches upon all the problems surrounding the controversial
palomarobles18 January 2007
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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The China You Never See
cnewf5 August 2007
I've seen lots of presentations by businesspeople and academics about Chinese industry, development, social problems, politics, progress, environmental disasters, etc. etc. I've never seen anything like this. It's China on the ground - actually a town about to be submerged by the Three Gorgest Dam project. The title translation of "Three Gorges Good People" is right - these are ordinary folks who endure, persist, help each other out, etc. in a mixed landscape of natural beauty, building, poverty, and destruction that has to be seen to be understood. The story of the dam shapes everybody's life without actually determining or washing them out. Definitely try to see this if you have any interest at all in China today.
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Like a painting
enzino-116 September 2006
Known previously as a documentary, and not as a romance, "Sanxia Haoren" ("Still Life") was the surprise — and last — film in Venice Festival (Italy) and not even the first one film of the young maker (he already had another movie in competition). Mr Jia shows us China just as it is nowadays. Not the power of huge works, or the beautiful scenery, just as the Dam on the Yangsi River nearby, but simple Chinese people, with simple problems, that do not know nothing such happiness (yet). It's heartbreaking, it's wonderfully filmed, it's like a superb painting. A simple masterpiece (and not only a Golden Lion). The surprise at Venice's Mostra. Catherine Deneuve, the French president of the jury of Venice, was very moved by Jia's work, the story told and the emotion of that film.
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Three Gorges Good People and the magic of perseverance
saareman18 September 2006
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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a glimpse of the real China
omphalodes8 January 2008
I think this is an outstanding movie.

Having lived in China for the last 3 years, I've not seen a movie that so completely encompasses the reality of life here. The sounds, the smells, the touch of real life saturates this film.

For Sinophiles everywhere this is a must-watch movie.

China aside, the cinematography feels like a work of art. The slow panning camera, the oblique angles, the over long lingering of the camera on the scenes, the moments of surreality in what is otherwise a movie grounded in the "real", the beautiful stills etc...

The movie is full of humanity and compassion, great depth and emotion.

More people should watch this!
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A monument to photography
maurazos24 February 2007
The comment which was written before mine gives a great and brilliant explanation of the social problems and facts that involves this film, so I am not going to repeat it. I prefer to talk about another one of the most relevant aspects of this movie: the photography, magisterially directed by Yu Likwai. Sometimes one can have the impression to be watching a photo album, further than a movie. There are no bad or ugly photo-grams in this film. Every image contains a really fine sense of photography as an art, including superb landscapes, exiting colors, and intelligent compositions with everything and everybody in the right place, without unaesthetic gaps. A pleasure for eyes and soul.
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Contemplative cinema at its finest
paulmartin-227 July 2007
Ancient towns have been submerged along the Yangtse River in China as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. Jia Zhang-Ke has created a contemplative and compassionate human drama set in the region, depicting two separate protagonists attempting to locate missing ones who lived in areas now underwater.

I'm not a great fan of high definition digital video photography, but this sublime film takes advantage of the benefits of the technology while avoiding most of the pitfalls. I was seriously sleep-deprived while watching the film and never got close to nodding off, even though there are very long takes where little seems to happen. Yet in takes, there are many passing details, the beautiful movements of camera taking in rich and authentic details of people, situations, implements, household paraphernalia and gorgeous sweeping vistas. The latter appeared to be enhanced using filters, which seemed to compensate for the loss of aesthetics that comes from not shooting on 35mm film. This film was visually beautiful, though that really only served what was an extremely well-made film.

As a lover of world cinema, I found the attention to detail fascinating. The director seemed to be sharing the idiosyncrasies of the local culture, customs and demeanour with a real sense of compassion and humanitarianism. I found it poetic, uplifting and moving. Paraphrasing Melbourne International Film Festival executive director Richard Moore's in introduction by quoting the director (who was in attendance as a guest of the festival): "I originally wanted to make films that would change the world... I now realise this is not possible, and I just wish to make films that make people sigh." It worked on me.
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Gorgeous pictures, but uninteresting characters
zetes18 January 2009
Zhang Ke Jia is a director who produces mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, I think he's a fantastic filmmaker as far as the technical aspects go, but I think his writing is pretty generic, especially when it comes to his characters, and he often relies on some hoary art movie clichés. Still Life is no exception, though it probably ranks as my favorite of Jia's films so far. Its worth is perhaps the result of a lucky accident more than anything. During the creation of the monumental Three Gorges Dam project in China, Jia filmed this movie while a city was being disassembled before it was to be flooded. Therefore, you get these beautiful, eerie scenes of this decaying, emptying city. The bifurcated story follows two characters, a man and a woman, as they seek for their ex-wife and current (but estranged) husband respectively. Structurally, it's kind of weird, because the woman's story pops up randomly in the middle of the man's story and has no relation to it. After her story ends, the film returns to the man and finishes his. I like the stories, but the characters are rather bland. I kept looking past them to the dreamy images behind.
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Achingly slow, but still an eye-opening insight into the severe side-effects of Progress
Robert_Woodward3 August 2008
Chinese director Zhang Ke Jia's latest film contains a wealth of fascinating real-life imagery. Still Life was filmed during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China and it reveals to Western audiences the astonishing destruction that this entailed. The submersion of the scenery and settlements of the valley floors proceeds in phases during the film. White lines are painted on buildings and cliff-faces to forewarn of the next projected rise in water levels; residents are forced from their homes at short notice. Buildings are torn down using sledgehammers and hard human labour, creating a bizarre landscape of broken masonry. Rubble, the raw material of the future, is carted along narrow city streets by overloaded lorries and dumped onto a fleet of cargo ships. In the wake of all this activity there lie towns and communities divided literally in two by the swelling waters.

Still Life is an amazing documentary of the construction of the Dam, but its narrative is disappointingly weak. So many of the characters that fill the screen are isolated or antagonistic or exploitative, from the man hawking foreign currencies to the architect proudly admiring the new bridge across town. Jia chooses to focus on two main characters, creating two loosely intertwined plots. In the first, a husband and father searches for his wife and daughter who left him some fifteen years previously, whilst in the second an abandoned wife searches for her missing husband.

These are potentially interesting stories, but they proceed at a pace that is slow even by the standards of Jia's other films. Much of the drama in these stories precedes the film itself and the camera often lingers on unmoving, unspeaking subjects. The effect is one of inertia, at first strangely engrossing, but eventually frustrating. Possibly in an attempt to alleviate the slow, slow pacing of Still Life, Jia introduces some quirky asides (watch out for the spaceship taking off), but these jar with his documentary-like approach to film-making. Rather more effective are the 'still life' moments that crop up periodically throughout the film, momentarily framing day-to-day objects such as cigarettes or tea.

Although achingly slow at times, Still Life does make some interesting observations. It is intriguing to see how pop culture, transmitted by television and radio, now provides the icons for young Chinese people, where once one might have expected the songs, the sayings and the thinking to derive from Communist figureheads. The boy singing romantic pop ballads and the young man imitating a TV cop show character are symbolic of a very different culture among the young people of China. As with Jia's other films, the ideology and rhetoric of the Communist Party are largely absent, making a sort of cameo appearance when an old-fashioned workers' song plays as the ring tone on one character's mobile phone.

On the other hand, we see very little protest against the construction of the dam under the gaze of the Communist Party. This is not a slight against Jia, however, since it would have been very difficult to portray this without the government intervening against his film. The unflattering portrayal of the Dam's construction and its debilitating influence on people are a wake-up call to the severe side effects of Progress.
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Awarding winning film that failed to move me
Redcitykev18 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Every so often a film comes along that, after having done the festival circuit, is laden with awards and praise, and quickly becomes a 'must see film'. 90% of the time it is easy to see just why that film won the awards, got all the praise etc, but once in a while such a film arrives that you watch and, after it has finished, you shrug your shoulders and think to yourself "yeh, so what!" Unfortunately I personally found this film one such case. I just could not fathom as to what the film was trying to say about contemporary China, the past or just about anything for that matter. A man arrives, finds his old village under water due to the Three Gorges Dam project, and he begins a fairly hopeless search for his wife and child. Meanwhile, following a strange object in the sky, another female is also searching for her husband, finds him and... well, just and! In amongst this are some very odd touches, like the aforementioned object in the sky, and a strange sculpture that suddenly lifts off like a rocket! Like, wow man! There are some nice touches - like when the bridge is lit up, and some of the photography is stunning, but overall I found that the film lacked any dramatic drive, the secondary character were all inter-changeable, and, for a film lasting just over 1 1/2 hours it felt so LONG! I know it is tantamount to filmatic treason to heavily criticise such a film, but to my mind this film was nothing short of the Emperior's New Clothes.
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Fantastic movie
Alea1235 October 2007
I watched Still Life yesterday night, it was recently released over here in Germany. It's a fantastic movie with gorgeous photography and possibly because the lives, lifestyles and scenery depicted in Still Life were so completely alien to me, it felt like a documentary. Great soundtrack, too. I was literally spell-bound, the movie drew me in completely and I felt quite dazed when I walked out of the cinema. I'd watched the movie with a friend and we got talking about our reactions to the film. I would have loved to quiz the rest of the cinema audience as to their reactions to the movie.

Still Life received a good bit of positive press over here in Europe (at least in those magazines/papers covering foreign movies/world cinema) but I also know several people who watched it and left halfway through because they were bored and 'there was nothing happening'. And I bet that this was a fairly typical reaction of the average European/Western cinema-goer. Yes, there is an almost total absence of sprightly dialogue or exciting action (unless you count the two UFOs...) and if you grew up with the classic Western/US style of film-making and your usual film fare is whatever Hollywood movies are shown at your local cinema, then Still Life will come as an unpleasant surprise, maybe because it is simply too different in visual style, content, pace and imagery to the average European/Western movie.

Personally, I think there should be more of these type of films over here. I really hope Still Life will be released on DVD in Europe otherwise I'll have to order it from a website or something and hang the expense!
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Nice movie
luongthanhanhduc19 March 2017
The movie tells two separate stories of two people. They are both from Shaanxi and take a long way to Fengjie to find their relatives. As they came to Fengjie, a 2000 year old city was going to submerge under water as the great Three Georges Dam was being built. Even though the media always tells great things about the Three Georges Dam, what the audience actually see is a dying town which is being demolished part by part. Along with the city is the destinies of poor people living here. People were forced to relocate and find another place to live and work. The movie is also very successful to depict the miserable living condition of poor people in the region. From here, another aspect of Chinese economic miracle is revealed as poor people find no way to get out of deadly spiral of poverty and have no choice but to move to other places such as Shaanxi to work as coal miners - a job as described in the movie can help them earn more money than their hometown but is also riskier as dozens of people die every year.

Another success of the film is the choice of music and songs that were played intermittently during the movie. In particular, the old song "Seung Hoi Tan" was used as a ringing tone for the phone of a local worker, perhaps as a reminder of old traditional value. On the other hand, "Mouse Love Rice" - a new rising love song at that time was singed passionately by the young kid marking the subtle transform in Chinese culture.
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STILL (frames without) LIFE
moimoichan614 June 2007
I felt asleep during Jia Zhang Ke's "Platform", unable to understand why the camera was still filming, whereas nothing much was happening on the screen : a bus disappearing in the back of a wonderful landscape took five minutes in this movie (it's true that it's coming back after a quite long time). I was wandering if the director himself didn't felt to sleep while shooting this scene, and was then unable to say "CUT". That's why I didn't watch "Unknown pleasure" nor "The world", despite of all the good critics. But I was curious to see "Still Life", thanks to the melancholic tone of the trailer and some of the interviews of Jia Zhang Ke, who claimed to explore the problem of the weaker social classes of china in this movie, and tended to do a more classical melodramatic movie. I was really looking forward a postcard of contemporary China (because Cinema sometimes allows us to peak a slice of a life you cannot experience by yourself). So, I just took a ticket for Fengjiie, a local town of the Three Gorge in the South China area, where the movie happens. And I have to say that Jia Zhang Ke did some improvement as a director since "Platform" : when he lets his camera filming, something finally happens, a errant dog can come out of nowhere after a while for instance : thanks to that new sense of timing, I never felt asleep during "Still Life".

In fact, the movie is really fascinating for it shows real people in a catastrophic area and you really have the feeling that it somehow shows us a part of reality of contemporary china. You travel when you watch this movie whiteout having the feeling of being a tourist, witch is quite interesting from a sociological point of view. The message of the movie also increases the documentary perspective of the movie, and archive to give an emotional impact to it : it's an all world that is disappearing while the rebuilding changes the face of the region towards "modernity", and the first to suffer from this disappearing are the people, who are literally lost in a universe they don't belong to anymore (that certainly explain the Sci-Fi incursions of the film). A character even quotes Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo's "A better tomorrow", and underlines the idea that the character of the movie don't fit to the changes that occur in China, saying that "We're too nostalgic for these times". It's quite strange, however, to see how Jia Zhang Ke tries to compare his weaker social class characters to Woo's beautiful anti-heroes.

But if the documentary/sociological part is quite interesting, the movie also suffers from several flaws, that, in my opinion, both contradict the sociological interest and seriously parasites the emotional impact of the movie. The movie is for instance divided in two parts, each telling an individual story, witch are thematically and geographically connected (a man and a woman are looking for people they used to love in the Three Gorge area) and they are like a mirror of each another (the two stories are playing with oppositions such as man/woman – poor/rich – the reconstruction of a family/the end of another one, etc.). But the thing is that instead of unity, this over intellectualized rupture seems artificially made, as if the director wanted to add something to his first idea (certainly the male story, because the woman's one is definitely shorter, witch contradicts the balance effect), in order to increase its meaning and generalize his point of view. All this structural game seems too me too demonstrative and artificial to works in a movie witch claim to reach the reality of people.

And I sensed the same contradiction with the way the director tends to reach reality : he uses a series of artifice and "dispositifs" that tend to capture reality, but that only shows cinema and art to me. I'm for instance talking about the way Jia Zhang Ke allows improvisations to a certain controlled space to his non-professional actors. That artificiality gave me the feeling to be more a filter of reality, than a pair of glasses that allows us to see it more carefully. And I think that that wasn't what the director wanted us to feel in front of his movie.
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Life on the Banks of, and in, the River
MacAindrais7 October 2008
Still Life (2006/2008) ****

What a lonely place the world is for so many. As we lurch forward in the name of modernity we always seem ironically becoming more and more isolated as the world around us gets smaller and smaller.

This conflict lies at the heart of Zhang Ki Jia's haunting film Still Life. Although the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 and received widespread praise, it only finally received a very limited theatrical run in North America this year.

The film revolves around two stories shot and set in the Fengjie area as it is being demolished and flooded for the Three Gorges Damn (that area is now totally underwater). One involves a man looking for his wife, who left him with their daughter 16 years ago. He's worked in the mines since then, and upon arriving home does not realize that the valley has been flooded. He searches around until he finds her brother. He informs him that she works upriver on a boat now. He can't see her until her boat arrives there. In the mean time, he makes friends with a young man called Mark, who bases his personality around the roles of Chow Yun Fat. The two work demolishing old ruins by hand with sledgehammers, while waiting for the estranged wife to return to town. The second story follows a nurse who comes to the area looking for her husband, who she has not heard from in two years. She enlists the help of one of his friends to help find him. She suspects rightly that her husband is having an affair. She discovers he is now quite successful, and having an affair with his female investor. When she finally gets to see him, she walks away. When he follows she tells him she is in love with someone else and wants a divorce. Is she really? Does she really? We can suspect, but humans are funny creatures.

These stories are only marginally interconnected. There are threads that connect them, but only randomly. The two are even on the same boat and witness the same strange event but are totally unaware of each other.

The strange event that the two witness is only one of a few that I would dare not reveal. They seem so strangely surreal in what appears to be such a grounded film. They're perplexing, but I think serve to highlight our tiny existence in an infinite world.

Jia films with a patient eye, allowing the camera to move slowly and linger on its inhabitants. It's a gorgeous looking movie, special for capturing a 2000 year old landscape in its death throws. There will never be another film like it, because those places no longer exist. That valley is the real star of the film. It's a haunting and otherworldly place where, despite the heat, the sun never shines.

Despite the film's focus on the destruction of time and place and our collective loneliness in the modern world, it's also a testament to the depth and capacity of the human spirit to triumph. Yes we are but small blimps on the world's radar, a world that isolates and alienates us, but we cope and strive. How? In the connections that bond us as humans. The physical world around us may be washed away, but the friendships and connections we make - no matter how small - remind us that it is often the smallest joys in life that mean the most. And with that, we persevere.
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Interesting but not riveting.
tao90224 July 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Two story lines with similarities that end differently. Each story concerns a man and a woman who are looking for their estranged partner in an area of China that is being demolished and is due to be flooded as part of a dam building program. Clearly change is inevitable but what will the outcomes be. One couple haven't seen each other for 2 years and decide to divorce. The other couple have previously divorced but decide to remarry.

A realist film with occasionally surreal moments. The drama unfolds slowly with lingering shots of the everyday events from that region of China.

Interesting but not riveting.
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An incredible visualization of urban China.
raredisma21 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Film: Still Life (2006) Director: Jia Zhangke

Still Life takes place in the decaying village of Fengje, which is the in the process of demolition in order to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. The film is a rather gripping and real look at modern China, with it being entirely filmed on stunning high definition digital video. Awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in its year of release, Still Life is an exceptional display of modernistic China and is well deserving of its praise by critics.

What's interesting about the plot is that there a two stories being told here. Although not necessarily connected to each other, they both take place in Fengje - The first following a coal miner named Han Sanming (interestingly enough, is the same name as the actor himself), who has traveled to Fengje in order to search for his wife and daughter after they ran away sixteen years ago. Despite Han having only played minor roles in Jia Zhangke's previous works, he delivers a leading role incredibly well in this film to the point where it almost looks like he's simply being himself. There is a feeling of distraught from his character that you really begin to see in the earlier scenes of the film as assumptions could have been made about people he meets, though we soon learn that he is able to handle himself well once he settles himself into a nearby hotel.

The second tells the story of a nurse named Shen Hong, who is searching for her husband Guo Bin, having not heard from him for over two years. During her search she befriends Wang Dongming, who assists her in looking for him. Shen is played by the beautiful Zhao Tao who also has played leading roles many of Jia's other films, I found her performance here to be also well done as she has a lot of prior experience working with Jia on his films. The two protagonists share the story of a lost love, but in some cases shows very clear contrasts of one another – Han obviously being of the lower working class earning 50 yuan per day for demolition work, where as Shen looks fit for a much more modern society - also tied into a relationship within a much higher class.

The biggest aspect of the film is the visual style, which I thought was remarkable. With it being shot in high definition everything looks visually impressive and is quickly apparent that this is what Jia wanted to be of the most importance in the film. Everything from the sweat and strain on the demolition workers as they are busy with deconstruction to the various shots of the crumbling buildings in Fengje. Jia's other works have had a tendency to use slow, panning camera-work in many of his other films and here in Still Life it is ever so common as there are very many scenes that slowly pan across the huge amount of rubble and men at work. Often they are accompanied without music but rather the distinct working sounds of the demolition which at some stages I felt like it was almost in a rhythmic fashion. Many shots contrast the torn down landscape in comparison to the natural environment, as well as moments when the camera is left lingering for us to observe so much of what is happening, enough to say that through the camera-work alone we can see that these people are left behind in a state of China that is slowly modernizing. Still Life constantly tells of a bigger picture in urban China as the characters are left to make decisions with their love life and choose how to move on in the ever developing society.

Although the film does feel slow paced at times, Still Life delivers a visually breathtaking look into urban China. By making use of the Three Gorges Dam project used it cleverly shows us the major changes happening not only in the landscape, but the people as well.
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A valediction to the Yangtze River
w-prince25 July 2013
It was the first time of Jia Zhangke to visit three gorges dam, and meantime he was filming about his artist friend, Liu Xiaodong painting the portrait of demolition worker in Si Chuang, Feng Jie. The year of 2006, the monstrous project, three gorges dam was built up on Yangtze River, and the public attention was staying on the side of how will bring the interest to offspring. Nevertheless, behind the national glory, the project itself still remains controversies and generated a group of immigrants called three gorges immigrants who originally lived in the town near the dam that government forced them to move away. Feng Jie is the one of the little town on Yangtze River surrounded by mountains that had to be demolished. The male protagonist, Han was the mining labor in Shanxi, now coming to Feng Jie to seek for his escaped wife and child. Doubtlessly Han was the common figure as a migrant worker in china, and a witness of the transitional life of locals. On the cruise, Han was sitting among workers that the camera captured their indifferent expression while they were looking out toward Yangtze River. Han was one of them, a poor worker who many years ago brought his wife, after having a kid his wife ran away from Shanxi. Feng Jie was alike the ruins of Pompey. At the moment of Han holding the old address of his wife, he was staring blankly to the river. The old town already buried under the water. It is the first hint of transition on the riverside. The nurse, Sheng Hong is an outsider akin to Han, looking for the reunion with his husband. Two years ago, his husband came to Feng Jie working as the manager of demolition and had an affair with a woman. Along the riverside, eventually her husband met and asked Sheng to dance. She left Feng Jie, and divorced without blaming on her husband. There are more symbolized scenes, like the death of the local ambitious and naive young man, and Han and his wife watching the building collapsing as if the end of the world comes. When Jia interpreted his movie, he said, "As tourists here, we still can see the remaining sight of green mountains and moving rivers. Though if reached the land, walked past the street, and entered into families in vicinity, you will grasp there was a bunch of people living in modernity, but remained such poverty. Over one million immigrants had to leave their own land, and two thousands year town was demolished instantly. It seems irrelevant to us as tourists, but at the bottom of our hearts we also suffered what the locals suffered by dramatic transition on life within these years."
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Only the location
Predrag16 December 2008
Warning: Spoilers
This was shot on a most incredible location ever to be filmed at. Which alone could make the film, not just visually, but by its deep surreal meaning - and it did. However, anything director tried to do only clumsily messed it up in several occasions, not showing a feeling for the whole, let alone a command of the film language.

Guiding the flow in such slow tempo usually demands absolute scrutiny of every shot, since audience has a lot of time to devote to it. Here I am under impression that there's a lot of ordinary, ballast newscast like footage mixed in with some meaningful and emotional imagery. If realism was the goal, then what's the purpose of 2 isolated appearances of UFOs? (Please!)

Film is divided into 4 "chapters" (cigarettes, liquor, tea, sweets) - which really don't mark anything in the story flow and are imposed by some packaging obsession. The meaning of these 4 things (explained in an interview) isn't readable not only to most international audience, but, I suspect, even some domestic viewers.

All in all, a very powerful location. Too powerful for Zhang Ke Jia's weakness, pretentiousness, and scattered mind not able to put its concepts on screen.
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May be I don't get it....
dino_cattaneo24 March 2007
If you need to name the good things of "still life", the first would be probably the clear picture of the lives a portion of China's people. Apart from that, well, I have to admit I'd have a very hard time to mention anything else. "Still life" is a very appropriate title, as, on the background of a deeply changing region (and society) nothing happens. Nothing happens in the movie, too, with very slow -well "still"- sequences that do not manage to communicate anything to the average western viewer.

I tend to like "intellectual" movies, but while I was in the theater I had the clear impression I was wasting two hour of my life. Actually, two of my friends fell asleep watching it.

It may have won the Golden Lion, but that is the ultimate proof that awards do not make a good movie.
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Award winner!!!???
caxaporra21 November 2006
I watched this movie at Stockholm filmfestival. I had great expectations about it, since it had surprisingly own in Venice, and because of some very enthusiastic comments I read here. Unfortunately I left the movie very disappointed!

OK, we find great landscapes in the movie and it gives a vision of the social drama that people moving due to the new dam are facing, but...What about a good script, good actors and dialogs!? And then, the annoying perfect pictures: digital recording...

It would have been a great documentary, but please do not call this a movie and, specially, not a great movie.

Give it 4 mainly for the landscapes.
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Almost Put Me to Sleep
robsta2318 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I'm going to rip on this movie so much, so first I'll talk about what I like. I like that it partially deals with a regional issue - a flood which has caused people to move out from the area in which the film takes place. I like the aspect of the two characters having the same quest - looking for somebody to finish unsettled business, though one is more successful than the other.

Basically, the rest of the film was not captivating to me at all. There weren't really any memorable lines, and good lines are what people take away from films because words sometimes inspire us more than just the images within film even though film is a visual medium. There was a use of special effects at one point of this film, and I really did not understand its purpose at all. We see this certain structure a few times throughout the film (it is difficult to describe) and at one point, this structure randomly produces fire at its base and takes off like a rocket. It seemed so out of place for this movie, which seemed to deal with very real dramatic situations. Though I know art cinema deals with narration over narrative, the narration wasn't even worth the experience for this film (should I even call it an art film?)

Maybe it's just me, but I really didn't relate to any characters in this film, it didn't look great visually, and there was no memorable dialogue in Still Life. While it dealt with dramatic situations this film was the antithesis of entertaining. If you're an avid film critic, give this a spin and prove me wrong, but you will hate this if you're looking for a good time.
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A dual panel about modern China
eabakkum20 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
During the last century the global interdependency has reached proportions, that surpass the human imagination. The unification is accompanied by a global shift in power towards the densely populated Asia. If I had to make a bet between China and India as the future superpower, I would put my money on China - because of its equality and even income distribution. Although it is also possible that one or both of these countries will eventually fall apart into smaller countries. Nevertheless, it seems wise to get a better understanding of the people that make our clothes and electronic appliances. So what does the film Still Life tell us? In fact it is composed of two panels, which portray the old and new life in China. They merge at the start of the film, when a ferry brings a woman and a man to a town (Sandouping?) on the border of the Yangtze river. The woman is married to an official of the communist party. They lived in another province, but he was ordered by the party to supervise construction works near the Three Gorges Dam. They haven't't seen each other for years, and now the woman wants to file for a divorce. She just needs his signature on the legal documents. It takes some time to find him, and when they finally meet there is some hesitation. He makes some protestations, which however are not really convincing. So she leaves just like she came. The other panel follows the man on the boat. Unlike the previous couple he is not a white collar worker, but a simple worker. Several decades ago he was married by appointment, through buying his future wife. They got a daughter, and subsequently she left him. Now he wants to meet her, under the pretense that he wants to see his daughter. He tries to find her village, but it was swallowed by the river, after the dam had been installed. So he takes a job as a demolisher of the old communist tenement houses. The working conditions are extremely simple, just using a sledge hammer, with no protection against dust or asbestos. He rents a room, and lives together with the other workers. The living conditions are clearly those of a developing country, however with some modern appliances such as mobile phones. During his searches he visits the former state factory, where his wife used to work. It has been closed as part of the new economic policy. At last he finds her on a boat, where she is the housekeeper of the owner. The boat owner pays her with food and shelter (so what is usually called the informal economy). The worker talks with his wife. Eventually he wants to take her back, which means paying a debt to the boat owner (which will cost him a year of labor). I guess the film is about change: both on the cultural and economic level. The old way of life is disappearing, although some of its primitive traditions prove to remain viable - and even more robust than some of the new habits. The new economic system has removed the certainty and protection, that were typical of the communist state. More and more the people move from the rural areas to the industrial regions. The dialogs are slow and simple, just as the narrative as a whole, but nevertheless touching. This low pace is also a hallmark of many Russian films, and it may be a remnant of the recent agricultural and feudal society. The film is also about the need to cherish relations, but here the message is mixed. For me the most informative parts are probably the primitive working and living conditions even in urban China. And the effects of the changing policies of the communist party. If you are interested in social films, but prefer somewhat more excitement, you may find my other reviews interesting.
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