The character “chai” indicates the building...

Shen Hong eventually finds her husband Guo Bin.

A tracking shot follows them engaged in a long, slow, and awkward dance ...

... to diagetic sound from a loudspeaker.

The dance ends in the base of the Three Gorges Dam.

The bodies of Shen Hong and Wang Dongming frame the enigmatic structure in the background.


Sanming stares at the horizon.

A UFO appears.

Shen Hong also sees the UFO, and its appearance becomes the segue between the narrative threads of the film.

Home and homelessness

In a well-known passage from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin refers to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in which an angel, facing the past and with his back towards the future, views the accumulation of successive debris over the course of history. He is propelled towards the future and witnesses the debris growing higher, and according to Benjamin, the storm which moves this angel we refer to as “progress” (257-258). In the introduction to the first collected volume of essays looking at ecocriticism and Chinese film titled Chinese Ecocinema, Sheldon Lu references this section of Benjamin’s essay to theoretically call for the study of filmic representation in order to attempt a redemption of physical reality, which he states film can accomplish. In many respects, Mainland China offers a perfect contemporary example of Benjamin’s metaphor of material history. This sentiment is echoed in the book Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics, in which Lu makes the translinguistic pun that contemporary China should be renamed “chai-na” (“tearing-down”) to represent the perpetual demolition and reconstruction throughout the country (167). This assessment of China’s current predicament via demolition also challenges the traditional notions of home and homelessness and recasts it as a problematic signifier of China itself.

... where Mr. He lives will be demolished. During the third phase of construction, the water will reach 156.5 meters, eradicating everything present in this shot.

In the last scene of the interaction between Sanming and Mr. He, Sanming points to a worker who has been ordered to paint the marker chai or “demolish” on the property. Markers of destruction are a recurring theme throughout the film as various buildings carry the painted sign “156.5 meters” representing the estimated water level by May 2006.  In fact, the notion of having a home and being homeless are two de-centered polar conceptions that pervade contemporary China as it attempts to provide homes but at the expense of causing homelessness. As Sheldon Lu further comments in his book:

“The supreme goal of the Chinese nation at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first has been the 'all-out construction of a society of moderate affluence' . . . a main component of which is the realization of the dream of a sweet home for each and every citizen. As per capita housing space increases, the domain of memory and history diminishes proportionately for those who have lived in the past. While dreaming about the new in their heads, many citizens do not let the old go so easily in their hearts.” (169)

As Lu insinuates, even though there is a state effort for the creation of a home, the notion of home will reside ultimately with the past as its location. The intense desire to reconstruct a home from the embedded spiritual and emotional core lost within the materiality of the debris stimulates both Sanming and Shen Hong, thus it is the act of finding a home that becomes the dominant motivating sentiment throughout Still Life (Zhang 152).

Sanming does reunite with his wife; however, the narrative does not resolve all interpersonal relations. Sanming never finds his daughter. Furthermore, the movie ends with a question as to what the future holds for those involved. Though it is a distinct possibility that Sanming’s entire journey is all in vain, the interpersonal emotions that provide the impetus for the characters to seek each other out continue to exist within the submerging terrain. Jia’s film asserts the possibility of personal emotional triumph over changing structures of contemporary life. As he comments in an interview,

“When I was making Still Life, what I first saw was a site of destruction, a two-thousand year old city that was destroyed in two years, leaving a sense of void and emptiness. But at the same time, the people are still going about their daily lives—which is evidence of a strong life force. So there’s a sense of contradiction between destruction and an ongoing urge to live.” (Rapfogel 47)

The coming together scene of Sanming and Missy (discussed in the introduction) as well as the break-up scene between Shen Hong and Guo Bin in the shadow of the dam demonstrate the possibility of emotional urgency of living despite the destruction of topography.

 The final scene between Shen Hong and Guo Bin occurs through a four and a half minute tracking shot that begins by following Shen Hong along a water bank as she angrily walks away from her husband’s car. He follows a few steps behind her as they walk towards the camera, and he eventually catches up with her. In profile against the backdrop of the river, they stare at each other in silence. In a gesture seemingly intended to reestablish an emotional bond between the two, Guo Bin offers Shen Hong his hand and attempts a ballroom-type dance with her to the diagetic piped-in music in the distance. The two slowly and awkwardly proceed, turning and dancing to the right, and the camera follows, capturing her face which exhibits an expression of apathy. As the tracking shot continues, it is revealed that they are in the reservoir under the large dam which overtakes the background. Finally Shen Hong breaks away from the dance, and the two stare at each other in silence with the dam dominating the background. Shen then calmly admits that she has found a new love. Guo Bin asks who the person is and how long the relationship has lasted, but his wife replies that it really does not matter. She says that she and her new love are going to move to Shanghai and that she would like a divorce. Guo Bin unemotionally agrees, and the two characters slowly part ways. Shen Hong continues walking towards the right, and Guo Bin stares at her back as she walks away and towards the dam. He then leaves to the left and eventually moves off-screen. All that remains for the last twenty seconds of the shot is the dam that looms in the distance as Shen Hong walks towards it, shrinking smaller to an almost imperceptible figure on the screen.

She asks for a divorce ... ... and walks away slowly ...
... decreasing in size in relation to the dam. Guo Bin walks away off screen.
As opposed to the reunification scene of Sanming and Missy who appear greater in size than the surrounding destruction, Guo Bin and Shen Hong end their relationship as miniscule figures to the construction projects around them.

This particular scene, which takes place under the dam, presents the inverse scenario inherent to the shot of Sanming and Missy in the gutted apartment building as they witness the crumbling city. As opposed to Sanming, whose work as a migrant laborer involves the destruction of buildings, Guo Bin is the manager in a construction business and responsible for much of the construction and demolition done in the area. When Shen Hong and Guo Bin finally confront each other in the shadow of the large state project, she enacts a long awaited breakup and inevitable divorce. One relationship re-assembles itself above the horizon of destruction while the other, lingering in the presence of the processes of construction, disintegrates at last.

Conclusion: boundaries of representation —
, Still Life, and the supernatural

The majority of Sill Life uses Jia’s typical filmic style employing long takes, an emphasis on conversational pauses, and the highlighting of diagetic sound to focus on the surrounding destruction and changes in topography, giving the film a documentary feel. However, several particular episodes shock the seemingly realistic trajectory of the work with glimpses of unexplained and supernatural elements which in turn point to Jia’s interest in pushing the boundaries of fiction, particularly the relations between documentary and film.[8][open notes in new window] One such shot, and arguably the most startling of the film, occurs in the absence of all the characters.

In an earlier scene, when Shen Hong goes to stay at Wang Dongming’s apartment, a peculiar looking building is shown near his residence without any introduction or clarification. The building is a many storied concrete architectural structure made of squares, and it is larger in the middle than the base. Later, the bodies of Shen Hong and Wang Dongming frame the structure in the background as they converse on his balcony. The shot centers on the odd-looking structure, but as the two characters converse, the building camouflages itself in the mise-en-scène. Finally, later in the film, a thirty second shot shows the structure resting still on the horizon. The shot begins very quietly with only the diagetic sounds of birds in the background. Shen Hong goes to the balcony and hangs a shirt on a line and walks back into the apartment. Suddenly, the structure launches like a rocket ship with bright light, though the launch occurs almost silently. Once the structure disappears, the remaining seconds of the shot show the horizon from the perspective of the balcony, with the shirt on the clothesline resting as if nothing had occurred. Because there are no apparent witnesses to the launching, it is if as nothing has even happened.

Away from the view of any of the characters, the structure takes off like a rocket ship and disappears as if it had never been there.

The structure turned rocket ship is one of several supernatural or unexplained appearances within Still Life. For example, the last shot of the film shows a tightrope walker balancing between two buildings slated for demolition. Also, and as stated earlier in this article, the segue between the first and second narrative thread occurs as Sanming is staring at the horizon. From over the mountains a bright light, appearing to be a spaceship of some sort, flies across the sky and disappears, resurfacing for Shen Hong to see. This two-shot segue initially jars the tranquility of the spectator in relation to the tone Jia sets to portray the events in Still Life. A closer look at the first shot of the sequence contains deeper levels when taken in context of Jia’s simultaneous documentary project Dong. The documentary follows two painting projects of artist Liu Xiaodong and is composed of two parts.[9] The first takes place in the Three Gorges area, and is directly related to Jia’s Still Life—the two being filmed at the same time. The second half of the documentary follows the same artist as he travels to Bangkok to paint female entertainment workers.

 In the first half of the documentary, Liu Xiaodong paints the semi-naked bodies of demolition workers who are tearing down the city to make way for the floods. The finished painting titled Hotbed, represents a long fascination of the artist with the Three Gorges and the people affected by it. Earlier, Liu Xiaodong had painted two works titled Great Migration at the Three Gorges and New Settlers at the Three Gorges; however, these works were done in his Beijing studio, and he used images from photographs and film clips (Wu 30). For Hotbed, Liu travelled to Fengjie, the town in which the narrative film Still Life takes place, to paint actual laborers. Several shots alternate between a close-up of the artist painting a crouched demolition worker who sits with his head on his hand, a pose similar to Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, and a long shot which reveals that the model is none other than Sanming, back to a close-up of the artist painting, and then a close-up of Sanming. Then, in one shot the camera pans from the canvas to the left as Sanming slowly stands up and gazes at the horizon over the river. From this point in the documentary, the shot is an exact replica of the shot of Sanming in Still Life when he witnesses the UFO that then becomes the segue leading to the second narrative thread of the film. The supernatural intervenes in the narrative of Still Life at the moment the documentary and narrative film intersect.  

A second aspect of Dong further confuses the viewer in relation to Still Life and the representation of the death of the character MaGe. In Dong, demolition workers along with Sanming carry the body of a fallen construction on a bier. This scene is a replication of a shot of the workers and Sanming taking care of the body of MaGe from Still Life after he is killed. The documentary, however, goes on to follow Liu Xiaodong, who then visits the home of the wife and daughter of a fallen construction worker whose body was taken from the demolition site. The death of the character MaGe in the narrative film is replaced with the real life death of a construction worker who has travelled to Fengjie to work in demolition.

Artist Liu Xiaodong in the documentary Dong stares at Kui Gate from the same location as Sanming in Still Life. Liu Xiaodong paints manual laborers in the Three Gorges area.
It is revealed that he is painting Sanming. The camera shows that Sanming is posing for the artist.
He stands up and stares at the horizon. This shot replicates the shot of Sanming when he sees the UFO in Still Life.
In Still Life, Sanming accompanies a group of workers who carry away MaGe’s corpse after he is killed. In Dong, Sanming also accompanies workers ... ... carrying a bier of a fallen construction worker. This scene heavily resembles the one in Still Life. In Dong, Liu Xiaodong will go and find the family of the deceased construction worker.

Representations of The Three Gorges Project in relation to the effects on the natural world coupled with the human toll of the dam’s construction only exist among multiple and conflated boundaries of several mediums: including painting, documentary, and narrative film. Jia Zhangke pushes these boundaries within his different works, showing the limits of documentary filming and where narrative elements defy human comprehension. In his article about the Three Gorges and film, Sheldon Lu speaks about a “jarring juxtaposition” between the natural scenery of the film, which resembles traditional landscape paintings, and the reality of demolition, ruins, and the character “chai” which signifies impending destruction (52). The illogical and supernatural elements that Jia throws into the otherwise realistic representation of the demolition in Fengjie add another jarring element that complicates the boundaries of the diverse artistic projects occurring simultaneously. The appearances of supernatural moments shock the tranquility of the mocumentary effect, but the blow of this shock reminds the viewer that the work Still Life is no more than a narrative—a fabricated story, though resonating heavily with true events of contemporary China. Jia’s filming of Liu Xiaodong’s Hotbed similarly pushes what the viewer of a visual work of art would assume to be the documentation of the workers on the Yangtze.  By inserting the amateur actor Han Sanming, a character in several of Jia’s works, the documentary again blurs what the spectator knows as real and what is representation.[10] Here Jia’s work points to the crisis of representation, particularly when the representation of one character logically ushers in the reality of millions of stories. Jason McGrath, in his conclusion to his article “The Cinema of Displacement” aptly points to this accumulation of consciousness and the dilemma of the act of representation:

“When the camera pans from the painting of squatting figure to show the real squatting model, we immediately become aware that even this real figure is only an image on the screen, but it is one that presses upon our own consciousness the fact that there are countless individual human stories, more then we can ever know, that have been caught up in and profoundly affected by the Three Gorges Project.” (45)

As opposed to Jia Zhangke’s previous work The World, which intentionally crafts an allegorical space representing globalization, Still Life purposefully defies allegorical readings and instead points to cracks in the act of representing the massive destruction that accompanies the Three Gorges Project. Along with narrating topography, in Still Life Jia Zhangke exposes the limits of narrating change.

The corpus of Jia’s films can be understood as, and as argued by this article, a study in narrating topography. From the very beginning, changes to physical space, accompanied by unprecedented access to technology has shaped Jia’s cinematic career. With Still Life, however, Jia goes a step further in this narration as he exposes the gaps in the contextualization of topographical changes, rather than highlight and capture topography with his camera. What is most important, then, is what is missing, contradictory, and illogical: Missy’s house which no longer exists, the daughter Sanming does not find, the rocket ship which goes unexplained, and the myriad other entities which will disappear. These entities evade the grasp of the camera but enhance Jia’s narration of topography all the same.

 In the end, the two narrative threads of Still Life narrate an indirect relationship between the changing challenges of contemporary Chinese society haunted by impending disappearance (as signified by the character “chai”) and individual emotions. As the destruction of Fengjie takes place, the concepts of home and homelessness become offset from their original signification, not unlike the homelessness of the migrant worker Sanming who travels to find his estranged wife to recreate a home—though their future together is left unknown. These circular dynamics of economic and social change highlight the heterogeneity of the migrant experience and the social strata that all remain affected though different levels of relationships to the means of production. Nostalgia brings Sanming back to his wife, hidden in the crumbling and flooding area of her hometown; similarly the necessity for Shen Hong to reestablish her emotional life becomes the impetus to relocate her husband only to break up with him. These parallel and inverse stories, that only cross paths through the appearance of supernatural elements, are the same story of love; they are the search for emotional agency amid the economic and environmental changes of China. The need to establish humanity within these multidirectional dynamics, and the emphasis on what one cannot explain, exemplifies the textual project of Jia Zhangke’s films as he narrates topography and its emotional impact in the 21st century.

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