Starring: Zhao Tao, Han Sanming, Wang Hongwei
Director: Jia Zhangke
Running Time: 107 mins
Still Life is a Chinese film about a man and a woman who return to the town of Fengjie in search of their spouses, but find themselves lost when they discover that the area has been flooded by the Yangtze River during the building of the Three Gorges Dam.
While it’s a very slow and quiet film, there’s a striking energy that emanates from Still Life, as it pans across the landscape of the riverside communities by the Three Gorges Dam, portraying the situation at the time in genuine and riveting fashion, all the while crafting an engrossing and equally genuine story following two people who return after years away to find their long-estranged spouses.
The most striking thing about Still Life undoubtedly comes in the form of its setting, and director Jia Zhangke’s mesmerising portrayal of just that throughout. Living right in the moment of the story it’s telling, the film is shot in the increasingly dilapidated towns and villages by the Yangtze River, with the impending threat of further flooding as a result of the immense dam being built downstream.
There’s no better way to show the truth about a situation than to show it outright, and as we follow the fictional characters (although based on many realities), the real-world nature of the story at hand becomes incredibly apparent, as they walk through the ever-more derelict communities in what seems like a hopeless search for their estranged loved ones. If you’ve ever seen Roberto Rossellini’s post-war classic Rome, Open City, then the sense of realism that comes from filming in the very location and time period of the crumbling communities will be apparent, something that director Jia is able to pull off brilliantly throughout.
Secondly, the story itself proves thoroughly engrossing and even rather moving from time to time, with Jia’s characteristically slow and quiet atmosphere playing in perfectly with the ever-growing sense of desperation and hopelessness in the two main characters as they follow every possible lead to find their partner, even when it all seems totally impossible.
That description makes the film sound like some sort of inspiring Hollywood tearjerker, but that’s not the case, as it utilises a simple yet thoroughly effective plot that takes inspiration from the true stories of thousands who returned to find their old communities submerged under the Yangtze during the late 1990s and 2000s, and in doing so it gives the characters’ searches a truly genuine undertone throughout.
As a result, while it may come across as a little slow at first, the story at hand is undeniably engrossing, and although the movie unfortunately repeats itself a little through its second act, it ultimately comes good with two riveting and emotional conclusions to each story, complete with all of the bittersweet drama that you would expect from a story as intimate and emotional as this.
In the end, then, I was rather impressed with Still Life. It’s not entirely perfect all the way through, but it stuns with a striking and powerful portrayal of crumbling communities, all the while furthering the emotional depth of a very genuine story with a measured and elegant atmosphere, making for an engrossing and often even affecting watch at times, which is why I’m giving it a 7.4 overall.