Has someone specifically labeled Jia Zhang Ke a "poet of globalization" yet? Well they should--it would be a fantastic marketing gimmick. Maybe capitalize it: the Poet of Globalization.
If I open glibly, snarkily, it's only because Still Life is the kind of film whose brilliance may need a bit of polemical cynicism in order to counterbalance what is surely a temptation for some (1) to read the film in purely impressionistic-melodramatic terms. Because as a story about people searching (for...) it is a fairly affecting film. But it is only when the human interest is understood within its wider contexts specifically--not as the dramatic heart of a social message but as micro-developments within a macro-narrative--that I think Still Life emerges as one of the very richest and most important "festival films" of recent years that I've had the fortune of seeing.
To a limited extent Still Life--not alone on this score--reinterprets through some kind of a "realist" lens a lot of the concerns of Italian Neorealism, namely, poor people relocated by circumstances, living in bad conditions but finding happiness, separated from loved ones, coping with health issues and a struggling local bureaucracy. (Forget the Nouvelle Vague--Neorealism and Antonioni are the real lightning rods of contemporary art cinema from around the globe.) Of course the "realism" on display here is prone to little revolts and the occasional display of outright fantasy--a funny bit of spaceship CGI--so in Jia's world everything has its limits. So, limited, too, are the moments of sentimentality (2).
This sense of engorged restraint, where every dominant (like a social realist aesthetic) has its antithetical moments (such as fantastical graphic whimsy), is how Still Life builds its richness. By telling two stories of migration, loss, and searching--a pair of tales which do not directly interlock narratively--Jia is going along with certain demands of a cinema about people. But instead of centralizing any of the interpersonal conflicts, he analogizes them to mirror or rub against the sociohistorical changes depicted more obliquely (but openly) throughout the film: the massive displacement of bodies enacted over several turbulent decades by the Three Gorges Dam (alluded to not only by markings on the city walls, and all the demolition work, but by television broadcasts themselves), the migrant nature of labor and its ill effects (we see the family pleading with a business owner to compensate for a man's lost arm), the (non)curative salves of escapism major and minor (commercial cinema, cards, prostitution: plus the four 'still life' chapters of cigarettes, liquor, tea, and toffee). While watching the film I was overcome with a very peculiar, gradual sense of sadness. This was intermittently sparked by moments of human interaction, of course, but I think it's really deeply motivated and sustained not by the idea of vanquished love or families torn asunder (Jia doesn't bet too heavy on this hand he's holding), but of the way Jia shows time's inevitable passing as etched on all the behaviors of these people amongst each other. And this way of understanding time passing right now is precisely linked to the movements of the Chinese economy, which have very local effects that drift outward and are--we must believe, as we already know--are in turn impacted from the outside onto the local itself.
Jia has a very fine pictorial eye but I've not been as struck by his work in the same way that I have by the likes of Hou, Tsai, Wong, even Zhang (to name some other big names in the sino-cinemasphere). Qualities of light, color, and composition seem--to me--to be slightly less important and rigorous than they do with someone like Hou. (Again, I must stress that I'm judging him relative to contemporary masters in this instance. Jia and his cinematographers can and do make images more beautiful than over 90% of what else is out there.) But where Jia compensates, and I had only really noticed this in Still Life, is with the sound design, which on first encounter is complex, multi-faceted, both full of "real" sounds of the urban space and manipulated for expressive effect. Consider a scene where the woman, Shen Hong, sees a flyer on the wall for Ding Yaling (her estranged husband's suspected lover, and "President of the Hehe Construction Group" or something of this sort). The camera lingers on a close-up of DY's photograph on the flyer, and then pans over to a high-angle photograph of a building implosion. As this pan occurs the ambient sound of the room increases in volume on the soundtrack, evoking the rumble-and-boom of the implosion. Experience comes to us, the film viewers, in images of images, enmeshed in both very localized human emotion (the bitter romantic jealousy felt, or that we suspect is felt, by Shen Hong) and the knowledge of the profitable displacement of masses of working people and lumpenproletariat by these kinds of construction projects ... the result of a legacy initiated by Mao but finally delivered by the bizarre CP-led state capitalism of mainland China.
Really, he is a poet of globalization, and though that is a fine marketing term for this festival filmmaker, it is also a valid description of his achievements. The snark and the sincerity converge, coincide. How postmodern! And Jia is a fine guide to have through the pomo rivers and gorges.
(1) I can identify this temptation in myself and assume I am not the only one.
(2) For the record, I'm not against sentimentality in art. There are far worse sins by and large and if a film is honest and upfront in how it's using sentiment to engage pleasure/identification/whathaveyou I've no complaints.
NB: Though I speak here of "Jia" I have not seen all of his films, and will remedy that soon. I have decided to let myself just post the immediacy of my thoughts in this review within hours of having seen Still Life--for Elusive Lucidity is nothing if not receptive to unpolished thoughts!--and, time permitting, I will soon try to retun to SL and also catch up with a pair of other Jia films, finally ... and if anything of note comes to mind, I'll follow up. Thanks for reading.
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Venue Woes: as I hit up the men's room at the IFC Center before the screening, two fellows at the commodes next to me had just come out of the previous screening of Still Life. One said to the other, "I fell asleep during the last few minutes. So what happens at the end, does blah blah blah happen?" Thankfully, two things. One, Still Life isn't the sort of film that's really possible to ruin with spoilers. Two, the second fellow in the restroom gave a totally vague and noncommittal answer (appropriate, following Jia) and so I didn't have anything spoiled two minutes before I even walked into the theater. A close call.