The four thematic segments of Still Life ...

... indicate small items ...

Shen Hong walks along the river.

She encounters a young girl (the same age as Sanming’s daughter) who asks if she can work as a domestic worker.

Shen Hong walks away, leaving the girl behind.

Guo Bin works in construction.

He is responsible for creating large projects associated with the dam.

Sanming is a manual laborer who physically tears down the surrounding villages to make way for flooding.

His work is demolition, and in one shot Sanming witnesses a wall tumble.

Workers show Sanming a picture of Kui Gate of the Qutang Gorge.

The picture is on the 10 RMB note.

Hukou Falls, from Sanming’s home province, is pictured on the 50RMB note.

The picture of Kui Gate on the bill ...

... that Sanming stares at while standing in front of Kui Gate.

In Platform, music signifies historical and ideological changes, from Maoism of the Cultural Revolution to foreign influences of the 1980s, represented here by rock music.

Shen Hong looks for a mutual friend Wang Dongming who is an archeologist.

He is uncovering artifacts from the Western Han dynasty.

Sanming searches for his wife’s address, but her neighborhood has been flooded.

The one address he possesses to find her is now obsolete due to the flooding, indicating a contemporary crisis in signification.

The motorcycle taxi driver points to where his home used to be.

The environmental experience in Still Life

After the first four full-length works, Jia Zhangke set his agenda towards one of the larger environmental issues of the day—the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.  The plot of Still Life involves two parallel narrative threads, the initial one following Sanming in the search for his wife, which is split in two by a second narrative of Shen Hong who is trying to locate her husband. The story is further divided into four thematic parts by superimposed intertitles: “cigarettes,” “liquor,” “tea,” and “toffee” which suggest the importance of “modest daily pleasures” that initially seem unimportant (Bíró 37). However, these small items become material reminders that highlight interpersonal relations on the microscopic level. For example, Sanming offers liquor to Missy’s family as a gesture of reconciliation, hoping to come closer to locating her. This gesture, though, will prove futile. Sanming and Missy, once reunited in the scene in the abandoned building, share a piece of candy, and it appears as though their relationship will be able to be mended. Still Life expands Jia Zhangke’s thematic preoccupations of in his first four films in order to explore the importance of human interaction, but from several important thematic angles: social/linguistic heterogeneity, nostalgia, and the concept of a home.

... that coalesce into brief moments ... ... of interpersonal relations among the characters.

Heterogeneity and migration

Still Life is a linguistically rich representation that reflects upon the migrant experience, and the heterogeneity remains imbued with socio-economic realities and class issues. In one of the introductory passages of the film, Han Sanming searches for an apartment. Upon finding one, he has a brief dialogue with the owner, an older gentleman named Mr. He. Sanming asks a question, and Mr. He asks what Sanming has said because he did not understand him. Sanming repeats himself, but the Mr. He replies that he did not understand the dialect that is being spoken. Sanming is from Shanxi province, and his migration to Fengjie presents an interesting linguistic encounter.

Shih Shu-mei’s work Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific begins with a reading of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She comments that for Chinese speaking audiences, the linguistics of the film were strange. The major stars (Michelle Yeoh from Malaysia, Chang Chen from Taiwan, Zhang Ziyi from Mainland China, and Chow Yun-fat from Hong Kong) presented a cacophony of Sinophone voices within the work. What Shih argues is that the representation of Chineseness in Ang Lee’s film is in fact an overdetermination of the notion of the Chinese characteristics purveyed through the martial art genre. The spectators not versed in Mandarin or other dialects view past the languages and see instead a homogenized view of Chineseness. Thus there is a dichotomy between visual language and oral language. The visual language responds to the hegemony of Euro-American global visual culture. If visuality is the primary means in which people comprehend identity, it must be rigorously critiqued in order to avoid the trap of homogeneity. But Shin warns that the appeal to heterogeneity can slip into a unifying category without meticulous theoretical investigation:

“To activate heterogeneity and multiplicity therefore means, above all, being historical and situated, because not all multiplicities are multiple in the same way, and not all heterogeneities are heterogeneous in the same way. The question is one of both content and structure, which are sensitive to multiangulated overdeterminations by such categories as history, politics, culture, and economy, both locally and globally.” (7)

Shih’s project is to address cultural identity among globalizing forces. She forwards the notion of the Sinophone in order to challenge the notion of diaspora, to question identities formed through migration, and to establish a “critical position that does not succumb to nationalist and imperialist pressures” (190). Her position inadvertently offers a critical stance to the reality of environmental migration that is a growing reality in Mainland China (190). Jia Zhangke purposefully highlights Sinophone heterogeneity in Still Life, putting forward the representation of migrant experiences which are cast through cacophonous dialectical conversations.  It is further representational of linguistic heterogeneity caused by environmental changes, rather than strictly global flows.

Looking at Xiao Wu, Michael Berry comments that the lead character, though going back to his hometown of Fenyang, actually speaks an Anyang dialect (of the actor Wang Hongwei’s Henan background). The majority of the other characters speak a Shanxi dialect. Berry’s discussion of linguistic and dialectical authenticity speaks in conversation with Shih Shu-mei’s critical assessment of global heterogeneity. He states:

“Aside from those from Shanxi or Henan, most audiences (especially international audiences) never notice the lead characters are speaking different dialects to one another, but we should not forget that Jia’s ambitious challenge to the artificial hegemony of the Chinese language as represented by standard Mandarin is, in fact, another construction. The use of non-authentic dialects to produce the illusion of authenticity is but one example of how Xiao Wu creates a documentary-esque mood through meticulous employment of various aspects of the cinematic apparatus.” (28)

Whereas Jia’s depiction of his hometown in Xiao Wu clusters the different dialects against each other for documentary style effect, in Still Life he goes one step further in purposefully making the viewer aware of the dialectical differences between Sanming and the locals. In one scene, Sanming and a group of demolition laborers are sitting together drinking and smoking cigarettes. They show each other their home provinces by having each other look at different denominations of Renminbi notes that have portraits of different famous natural scenes depicted on them. However, taking into account Jia Zhangke’s larger project of showing conflicting class positions, migrant experiences, and the benefits reaped by certain classes involved in the Three Gorges project, the linguistics of the film extend beyond simple dialectical differences and point to the heterogeneity of environmental encounters that touch demographic strata.

A brief encounter with Shen Hong and a young girl, who represents the predicament of Sanming’s daughter, speaks to how different socio-economic levels are being affected by the Three Gorges Dam.  Early after being introduced into the narrative, Shen Hong walks along the river’s bank, and a tracking shot follows her has she comes across a young girl. The girl then asks if Shen Hong is a local and whether she can help her. The young girl’s name is Chunyu, and she is looking for work and wondered if she could get employment as a domestic worker. Shen Hong says that she is not from the area but from Shanxi province. The girl says that she is sixteen years old, and Shen Hong replies that the girl is so young and slowly walks away leaving her alone beside the river. 

The interaction between Shen Hong and the girl presents a brief intersection between different social strata and their relationship with mobility and movement. Chunyu must leave to look for work, so she asks Shen Hong if domestic help is a needed commodity in her province. Shen Hong, on the other hand, is visiting from Shanxi because her husband’s job lies on the other side of the technological/ environmental divide. She is able to move into the abandoned area to find her estranged husband in order to reinstate her life. When she finally asks for a divorce, she admits that she and her new lover are going to move to Shanghai. Her mobility within the country is completely different from that of the girl she encounters at the riverside and from Sanming and Missy’s daughter. Furthermore, Shen Hong’s position as volunteer traveler to locate her husband contrasts the position of Missy, who was purchased as a wife by Sanming two decades earlier and is a product of human trafficking. Once she flees Shanxi to go back to her hometown, she is then resold by her brother to a local man. Sanming must repay this man the brother’s debt in order to get Missy returned to him.

Sanming works his way to Fengie in order to find his wife and daughter. He is invested in the demolition of the city—as exemplified by the many takes that show his manual labor as he works on a demolition crew in the area. Guo Bin, on the other hand, controls the labor and is able to use it to flee his wife and hide behind his busy business schedule. The only relationship between the two couples of the film is the demolition/construction divide that inversely defines their lives. Therefore their travel from Shanxi to the dam occurs through different economic channels. The positionalities of the characters mirror the multilayered realities of locations, origins, and socio-economic backgrounds. Accompanying these realities is the feeling of nostalgia among the characters that remains inextricably related to environmental issues.

Nostalgia of the environmental experience

When Sanming first moves into his dorm residence, he encounters a group of demolition workers. One of them asks if he had seen KuiMen (or Kui Gate of the Qutang Gorge) as he was arriving. He then shows Sanming a ten Renminbi (RMB) note that has a painting of Kui Men on it. Sanming then says that his part of China is also represented on money. He shows the man a fifty RMB note with Hukou Falls on it. The next shot shows Sanming staring at Kui Men as well as a ten RMB bill.  As present topography disappears, individuals cling to fabricated memories of different pasts and locations. Jia Zhangke plays with the concept of nostalgia throughout Still Life, conjuring images and sounds of different cultural legacies. He also shows how present experiences imbued with nostalgic elements and desires to regain certain pasts craft a particular nostalgia that formulates itself as a manifestation of the impending environmental predicament. Jia recasts the complex relationships between individuals and memories as a state of crisis, and the film leaves the characters with either unintended consequences or uncertain fates.  

When Han Sanming arrives in Fengie, one of the first men he befriends is a colorful ChowYun-fat enthusiast who goes by the name “Mark” (MaGe).  A four minute long one shot-sequence narrates a burgeoning friendship between the two men.

A slow zoom narrates a developing friendship ... ... between MaGe and Sanming.
MaGe is a Chow Yun-fat fan. He mimics the iconic cigarette lighting scene from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.

Initially the shot begins by focusing on a wall in front of which are some bowls and a thermos. The camera immediately pans slowly right revealing the room in which Mark and Sanming are sitting—Mark on the left of a table and Sanming on the right. The camera pans for a total of twenty seconds and then focuses on the table—a bottle of alcohol strategically placed in middle being the center of the shot. The camera then very slowly zooms in on the table, going from a medium-long shot to a medium shot. This almost imperceptibly slow zoom occurs for a total of two minutes, then stabilizes with the bodies of Mark and Sanming framing the shot, the bottle continuing to remain in the center. The slow focus on the two men together around the table reveals an initially unforeseen closeness between the two. Mark is able to understand many of the gaps in Sanming’s biography, surmising that he has purchased his wife. From the personal story that Sanming recounts, Mark is also able to locate their specific predicament existing within their circumstances—quixotic nostalgia within the contemporary world.

Continually influenced by Chow Yun-fat and Hong Kong cinema, MaGe adheres to a tough guy image. This play acting will eventually prove disastrous as MaGe continually falls victim to the attacks of rival demolition crews.
The two men let each other listen ... ... to their cell phone ringtones.

Mark adheres to the tough-guy image of Chow Yun-fat. When introduced in the film early on, Mark stares at a television showing A Better Tomorrow and the shot of Chow lighting a cigarette with a one hundred dollar bill. Later, Mark uses a strip of paper to light a cigarette mimicking the iconic introduction of Chow Yun-fat in John Woo’s film. During his conversation with Sanming, he admits to the lawlessness of the area, and in a preceding shot to the conversation between the two men, Sanming rescues Mark from being trapped in a bag—a retribution from a competing demolition crew. As the two men come closer, as narrated by the long take, Sanming shares information about his past and the reasons for leaving Shanxi and coming to Fengjie. Sanming explains how he had purchased his wife from the region and brought her home, but she was unhappy and fled back to her hometown, taking their daughter who would now be sixteen years old. After listening to the story, Mark says to Sanming, “you are quite nostalgic.” In a quote attributed to Chow Yun-fat, Mark further replies, “Today’s society is not suitable for us, because we are too nostalgic.”

The two men exchange phone numbers, and the ring tones of each man’s phone add an additional intertextual layer.[6] [open notes in new window] The ringtone of Sanming is the tune “Good People Will Live a Life of Peace.” Mark’s ringtone, on the other hand, is the popular tune sung by Ye Liyi “Shanghai Tan” which was the theme song for a television program of the same name during the 1980s. This program featured Chow Yun-fat as the main character, but lyrics of the song [“waves ebb and flow, the river runs incessantly for ten thousand miles”] provide a segue that ends the shot-sequence and brings attention back to the Yangtze River. As the ringtone proceeds, the scene ends as it jumps to a shot of the Yangtze with a boat travelling on the rough waves, and “Shanghai Tan” blares over the loudspeakers. Mark’s ringtone thus provides the textual and thematic bridge between the friendships of the two men to the final sequence of Sanming standing in front of the Yangtze, staring at the horizon—the last portion of the initial thread before the film turns to the story of Shen Hong’s search for her husband.  

Due to his use of digital recording, hand held cameras, and sound recording intended to pick up as much diagetic background noise as possible, Jia Zhangke is often described as a documentary-style director. His film manipulates a multitude of internal texts (television screens, piped in music, trinkets that play particular songs, etc) which contribute to a rich and multi-layered narrative. As Michael Fitzhenry and Xuelian Zhang describe, “The authenticating image—of virtual destinations, popular music, radio and TV programs that appear or are heard in Jia Zhang Ke’s films—is an abrogation of narrative in favor of image intensity” (51). Specifically, the prevalence and thematic importance of popular music often strikes viewers of Jia’s films, and indeed this idiosyncratic part of his filming has lead to much discussion about the thematic implementation of music within his work. Jia admits to the importance of popular music—the titles for both Platform and Unknown Pleasures derive from popular songs.[7] Jia explains the historical importance of popular music as a socio-political bridge that affected the lives of those who experienced Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s:

“Before the mid-eighties all the songs we heard in China were propaganda, revolutionary songs. All of a sudden in the eighties, rock’n’roll was being written in China. This is the meaning that the song Zhantai ['Platform'] has for people. It inspired me when I was thinking about the script. It is a love song but the lyrics are also about expectation.” (Kraicer 31)

Of his three first full-length films, Platform is the best at purposefully exploring the musical evolution from the late seventies to the early nineties. In the beginning of the film, for example, the Peasant Culture Group begins by performing a tribute to Mao Zedong titled “Train Heading for Shaoshan.” After several years, when the troupe becomes privatized and tours the country, they perform popular rock songs accompanied by choreographed dances.  

Popular music then becomes a historical marker of radical social and ideological transformation at work in the years following China’s Open Door Policy. Popular music, however, is not just a signification of change, but a culturally charged reality that does not escape the critique of Jia, even as he uses it to situate temporality in his works. Through the prevalence of particular songs, a certain resistance to state hegemony occurs all the while remaining as a fantasy that lingers among the lives of the characters encountering change. As Kin-Yan Szeto comments in the conclusion to an overview of Jia’s film and the arena of music as political field,

“Jia simultaneously valorizes and criticizes the realm of popular music, associating it dialectically with both passionate desire to resist state hegemony as well as to lament the circumstances that have turned these desires into unattainable fantasies of transcendence. In Jia’s hands, the popular song becomes a site of limited possibility showing the contrast between what is and what might be; conditions he perceives to be mediated by capital, power and ideology.” (106)

The rich textuality of Jia Zhangke’s films illustrate most importantly a world undergoing vast and rapid change which affects all those living through the transition, though they are not completely aware of the significance of such change. The hodgepodge of artifacts from the Culture Revolution to 1980s global popular culture produces a disjunctured blend that is interrelated as byproducts of rapid social, economic, and ideological transition.

Such textuality in Jia’s film has been seen as “kitschy” in that it arises “from the degraded mishmash of traditional and modern, local and global. . .[it] is ubiquitious and penetrating, until it looms as large and real as the inescapable experience of the day” (Ban Wang 213). Coupled with heavy use of long takes and extreme long shots, Jia’s retelling of the era of transition also assumes a form of nostalgia. This particular nostalgia, however, represents a reflection upon changes rather than mobilizes a call to go back to the pre-reform era. As McGrath explains:

“The almost exclusive use of long shots and extreme long shots maintains a distance between the viewer and the object of nostalgia that mitigates against easy sentimentality even in the most dramatic scenes. Long takes, meanwhile, convey the sense of time as endured, demanding reflection by the viewer rather than the simple consumption of nostalgic images or narrative formation.” (100)

The nostalgia that pervades Jia’s works reminisces upon much of the ambivalence of the characters to the changes more than on a lauding of the changes at play in his characters’ lives.

Nostalgia is a complex recasting of the relationship between the present and a perception of a pastness through which one attempts to revision a future. Bakhtin refers to a “historical inversion” of the poetic and artistic imagination, through which universal themes such as “purpose, justice, perfection, the harmonious condition of man and society” are housed in the past (146). This same enrichment process of the past and the present at the “expense of the future” describes the counter-teleological conceptualization of pastness inherent to the feeling of nostalgia (146). For example, Sanming and his wife parted sixteen years earlier, yet the immediacy of the present transforms itself into an emphasis of the pastness of the relationship—though perhaps there never had been a perfect relationship at all between them. Therefore nostalgia, which will seek the pastness in the present, is in fact the structural makeup of the relationship. Sanming re-seeks the past to enrich the present—though the past never existed.

Linda Hutcheon crafts an assessment of nostalgia that similarly breaks the hegemony of the teleological in her essay “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Post-Modern.” She traces the entomologically rich history of the notion that is associated with its Greek roots meaning “to return home” and “pain,” but in fact was employed initially in the 17th century to describe a pathological phenomenon of homesickness. Most importantly, this semantic evolution encompasses an impossibility of return. The “home” that remains in the imagination of the individual as a location to which to return, is now an irrecoverable entity, complicating the teleology and anchoring the longing with the predicament of the present, thus containing an inherent irony on the part of the subject of nostalgia (207).

For the characters in Still Life this present is also encountering a specific danger once the encroaching waters eradicate physicality.  In the second narrative thread of the film, Shen Hong finally finds an acquaintance of her husband named Wang Dongming, who is leading a team of archeological investigators attempting to unearth any remaining historical artifacts. Towards the end of their exchange, Shen Hong asks Wang Dongming what they are retrieving, and he replies, “Artifacts of the Western Han dynasty.” Environmental nostalgia, as represented by Still Life, is a particular psychological state that problematizes personal relationships with historical and cultural pasts. Without the temporal/spatial in concert, all memory will appear to be lost just like the artifacts that Wang Dongming attempts to retrieve through his archeological digs. 

Rey Chow’s writing about nostalgia (in context of Hong Kong and its colonial past) mobilizes a similar teleological inversion. Chow begins with the traditionally held view of nostalgia as a search for an object which is lost by directing it away from the conventional inherent teleology. Then Chow claims that nostalgia can be reversed and understood as “a feeling looking for an object” and asserts that nostalgia is ultimately a “subjective state that seeks to express itself in pictures imbued with particular memories of a certain pastness” (211). By interjecting the concept of the environmental into the understanding of this pastness and space, the analysis of Still Life builds upon Chow’s use of the teleological reversal to form a contextualization of nostalgia that focuses on an ambiguity between spatial and temporal relationships. What was once a space known to a character or community has been displaced from its temporality, the resulting affective response has been recycled into the form of a loss. Responding to this sense of loss, characters in Still Life cling to objects, memories, and quixotic dreams. However, Jia Zhangke goes one step further in his exploration of nostalgia, ultimately narrating it as a crisis in signification.

A comparison of the first shot sequence from Jia’s first film Pickpocket with a three minute long take early in Still Life involving Sanming and a local motorcycle taxi driver demonstrates an evolution in Jia’s thematic emphasis away from representation of nostalgia as simply homesickness and towards crisis when signifiers of past and home are disrupted. After Sanming arrives in Fengjie, he asks to be driven to a specific address. This address was written on a cigarette pack sixteen years earlier when Missy left him. Sanming dismounts from the motorcycle to see not a home but only weeds sticking out of the water’s edge. He accuses the driver of attempting to trick him, but the driver shouts back that he was not the one that had ordered the village to be flooded. The driver points to the water and proclaims that his home used to be over where a boat is docked.

Still Life contrasts heavily with how Jia represents location as signified entity as exemplified in the establishing shots of Pickpocket—as introduced earlier in this article. The characters written on the matchbook in Pickpocket indicates the location of the film, and the first four shots narrate a homecoming for the protagonist. In Still Life, the piece of paper with an address on it represents a return to a home, which is not the home of the protagonist. Furthermore, once that home is located, as represented by the cigarette pack, it is discovered that the home no longer exists due to the flooding of the Yangtze.  This scene demonstrates the significance of environmental reality and how it intervenes with the simplest of signifiers, a piece of paper with an address written on it. Sanming uses this address to reconnect with his past, but his search for his wife is stymied by the flooding. This one shot sequence in Still Life elucidates the crisis on the simplest of levels. Amid the landscape undergoing great topographical change, the characters of the film cling to the most mundane of items, like the address written on the cigarette pack. These items allow the characters to cling to representations of other histories, identities, and signs of times past, representing the larger crisis which Jia Zhangke narrates as imbued with the lingering of nostalgic elements.

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