Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2008

Still Life

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

Opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York, Jia Zhang-ke’s “Still Life” (Sanxia haoren) is a no-holds-barred assault on the dubious progress wrought by the Three Gorges Dam. Shot on location in the town of Fengjie, which was demolished by the state and then deluged by the Yangtze River, it is one of the most radical-minded films coming out of China to date and takes its place alongside “Blind Shaft,” a movie about coal miners. Indeed, one of the two main characters is Sanming, a coal miner who has come to Fengjie in search of a daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years. The moment he arrives he takes a job demolishing houses.

One evening after work Sanming shares impressions with a fellow worker about the immense changes taking place around them. His comrade rebukes him by saying that he is too “nostalgic”. As irrefutable proof of this, we hear Sanming play a downloaded ring tone on his cell phone, which is an old Red Army anthem—a perfect symbol of the paradoxes of Chinese society today: in the name of Communism, a brutal forced march toward capitalist modernization proceeds apace.

In another scene that takes place in a restaurant terrace, a couple of party bureaucrats gaze in admiration at a bridge over the river – a fulfillment of Mao’s promise to “tame the Yangtze” – but are annoyed that the bridge is not lighted. After an underling throws a switch to light up the bridge like a Christmas tree, they beam in satisfaction.

We see a group of laid-off workers, some of whom have lost a limb on the job, demanding compensation from their former employer, another party hack. He urges patience and patriotism, but they threaten a suit. Taking in this confrontation is one Shen Hong, a nurse who has come to Fengjie in search of her estranged husband, a manager at the factory.

Shen Hong looks up her husband’s friend, who is an archaeologist supervising a dig nearby the Yangtze River. He explains to her that he is in a rush to find and preserve 2000 year old relics that are about to be lost forever under the water. Like the relics, the citizens of Fengjie also face an imminent deluge that will sweep them away.

The 37 year old Jia Zhang-ke is a remarkable director who is decidedly contrarian when it comes to his nation’s “economic miracle”. His 2005 “The World” (Shijie), which I have not seen, is an assault on globalization and free trade, using the tacky Beijing World Park that includes replicas of some 100 tourist attractions from five continents in the same way that “Still Life” uses the Three Gorges Dam.

In an interview with the Village Voice, Zhang-ke explained how he decided to make “Still Life”:

“I had no plan to make Still Life,” says Jia. “But there are so many things happening during the Three Gorges Dam project, it warranted another film.”

Reportedly displacing close to two million people and moving 13 full-sized cities, the Three Gorges Dam epitomizes the tragic costs of China’s growth (and also makes a cameo as an example of environmentally unsound industry in Jennifer Baichwal’s recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes). Still Life follows two unrelated stories of a man and woman returning to the affected area to search for long-lost loved ones. In a wry exchange typical of Jia, the coal-miner protagonist gets a ride to his old (now flooded) address from a peroxide-haired young motorcyclist, who says: “That little island out there, that was your street.”

Jia had never visited the Three Gorges region before. Prior to the controversial dam, the area was noted for its scenic vistas and—apropos of Jia’s capitalist concerns—its image graces the back of the 10-yuan note. “But after getting there,” he says, “I realized that this is a 2,000-year-old city that just vanished overnight. And I was really shocked at the rapid destruction of these places. It was as if it [was hit by] an alien invasion or nuclear fallout.” (Jia makes explicit the alien metaphor—UFOs make an occasional appearance in the landscape.)

Highly recommended.


  1. Based on your review of “Still Life” I watched Jia’s earlier work “The World”. I’d encourage your readers to see it as well. In the best sense of the word, it is an Epic. I found the movie to be a deeply moving human response to what is happening in contemporary China, a place I know little about.

    It’s not preachy, but it’s relentless. Beautifully shot, a compelling story with terrific characters, so much going on underneath each scene. All that information is contained in a calm package.

    The characters are deeply alienated from each other, with a few trying to make connections in spite of their circumstances. After an unexpected ending, two of the characters have an offscreen exchange. The last frame is a dark screen with the words, “…… No, this is just the beginning.” Shades of things to come in the new China? Or for that matter, the world?

    Also I wanted to say thanks for a great site. I’m trying to make sense of the world and you have a helpful take on things.

    Comment by Bruce F — January 21, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  2. […] last film “Still Life” was a fictional work that examined the horrific impact of the Three Gorges Dam. “24 City” is […]

    Pingback by 24 City « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 30, 2009 @ 10:15 pm

  3. […] the Yangtze” as well as a narrative film about the Three Gorges Dam titled “Still Life” that I reviewed when it came out in 2008 and that is now available as a DVD rental from […]

    Pingback by Up the Yangtze; China Heavyweight « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 7, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

  4. […] Wang Xiao-Shuai is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, a reference to the post-1990s current that used low-budget “indie” techniques such as digital cameras matched to a neorealist esthetic, in other words the very type of film this reviewer treasures. Many of these filmmakers have run into heavy state censorship or are prevented from making films altogether. This is frequently a function of them presenting what amounts to a radical critique of Chinese crony capitalism found in a film like “Blind Shaft” or “Still Life”. […]

    Pingback by 11 Flowers | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 23, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

  5. […] to see if it showing locally. I also recommend Zhangke’s 2008 narrative film “Still Life” (https://louisproyect.org/2008/01/17/still-life/) and 2009 documentary “24 City” (https://louisproyect.org/2009/05/30/24-city/), both of which […]

    Pingback by A Touch of Sin | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 5, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

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