'Still Life' is the centrepiece of the current Jia Zhang Ke retrospective at the BFI Southbank, which also coincides with the wider China in London festival which runs from February to April. A late entry to the Venice Film Festival, the film was considered an unexpected winner of the Golden Lion prize, but it's difficult to deny that 'Still Life' is an accomplished piece of work by a very exciting film maker. Chinese cinema was once defined by the Fifth Generation directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who made some of the best films of the late 80s and early 90s, but have lost their artistic way somewhat as they have been embraced by the Communist establishment. Directors like Jia Zhang Ke exist on the periphery of Chinese film making; their films seldom seen in their homeland, but received with great interest in the West. These directors speak for contemporary China more than Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou ever could now.
Set in Fengjie, a town about to be demolished because of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (millions have been displaced and subsequently relocated because of this project), Jia Zhang Ke films parallel stories about individuals searching for families and loved ones before the town completely disappears. Han (Samming Han) is looking for his wife who left him sixteen years ago, taking his daughter with him, who he has never seen. Shen (Tao Zhao) is looking for her husband who left for Fengkie two years ago and hasn't returned. He's a successful bureaucrat who she suspects of having other women - she wants a divorce.
Within these personal stories, Jia Zhang Ke shows the human cost of rampant capitalism and the rapid modernisation of China. Towns, families and communities are uprooted and destroyed, and traditions and values are lost in the name of progress. He captures the changing landscape of China exceptionally well; its ambition as a global economic force with ostentatious displays of success - the bridge lit at nigt to hallucinatory effect for instance, and also how capitalism creates a black market or barely legal economy where people have to fight and do what they can to survive. It's not always a flattering portrait of Chinese success in recent years.
Typically filmed in long, slow takes - there are many point of view shots of the leads looking in to the distance, surveying the progress that's in front of them, 'Still Life' is always absorbing and involving, contemplative rather than soporific, and you really feel for these characters. It's not without humour too - witness the young men Han befriends who models himself on Chow Yun Fat from 'Hard Boiled', imitating his mannerisms and language. There's moments of surrealism too. The two tales are linked by the sight of a UFO crossing the Yangtze River, seen only by two leads. What is the metaphorical significance of this, and also a centuries old temple suddenly flying into space as if it were a rocket? The speed of change and progress perhaps? The jettisoning of traditions? And what of the man walking a tightrope in the final scene? Does this represent the fine balance that China is currently treading - between success and failure? 4/5