Currently, the NFT in London is showing a retrospective of the Chinese film maker, Jia Zhang-Ke, but the problem with such a tantalising range of films is that for somebody like myself who lives in Manchester, getting access to such a wealth of cinema would mean having to commute regularly just so that I can satisfy my endless demands for film. Such an argument of cultural bias seems absurd when considering how DVD and the Internet have considerably narrowed the classic problems of accessibility and availability that were associated with world cinema in the past. But if this true then are we clearly not suggesting that those who do not have the means to access films on the big screen in their rightful context should be satisfied with reducing their consumption of films to a flat screen and multi region DVD player?
It still seems strange that
If Still Life or any other major world cinema release was afforded a worthy distribution and exhibition package then perhaps it might have a chance of finding an audience within the supposed narrow consumer tastes of the average cinemagoer, but of course, such an idealistic proposition would be met with much derision and anger from a Hollywood system that seeks endless opportunities for commercial exploitation of a film, and unfortunately, Still Life is not a product, but an illustration of ‘true’ cinema.
The Three Gorges Dam Project is one of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken by the Chinese government. Still Life looks at the real life social consequences of such a massive undertaking on the communities and individuals who have been forced to relocate elsewhere. Using a parallel narrative that features the story of two people returning to the town of Fengjie, looking for people they seemed to have drifted away from for reasons that are not explained, the film presents us with a carefully observed study of a reality that is unflinching in it’s depiction of humanity, with people reduced to mechanical figures frozen in time against a vacant landscape reminiscent of the films of Antonioni. Much of the film is shot through a series of long takes and a fixed vantage point that allows characters to enter and exit the frame with remarkable naturalness and ease that is in no way motivated by narrative casuality. In fact, the neo realist approach utilised by Zhang-Ke is evident in how he permits conversations and situations to come almost organically from out of the landscape itself, a technique favoured by De Sica and Rossellini in films such as Bicycle Thieves and Paisan. Though the film seems apolitical in how it avoids overtly condemning the Chinese government for policy decisions like the Dam Project, it seems more concerned with exploring how the inevitability of change as a historical force pulls and pushes at the lives of ordinary people, fracturing communities and smashing society so it is rendered in a constant state of paralysis.
Still Life is a film that finds parallels with the alienating landscapes of Antonioni and the understated moral vacuum of Bresson, suggesting that life in