copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Narrating topography:
Still Life
and the cinema of Jia Zhangke

by Eric Dalle

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which reached various levels of completion during the first decade of the 21st century, has become an intensely controversial issue among environmentalists, the government of the People’s Republic of China, and the millions of residents who have been displaced due to flooding caused by the dam’s construction.[1] [open notes in new window] Set upon the backdrop of Three Gorges Dam, Jia Zhangke’s 2006 film Still Life follows the interpersonal intricacies of two couples from opposite sides of the economic divide of an industrializing China. The characters’ lives play out in relation to the construction and demolition associated with the damming project. Furthermore, the film explores how the impending flood highlights the complexities of the socio-economic while contemplating the human limits of comprehending massive changes in topography.

One prominent long take occurs after Han Sanming and Missy, two of the main characters from an initial narrative thread, reunite after sixteen years of being apart. The estranged pair dawdles in a gutted building. The man and woman are placed in the right–hand side of the frame of this long shot: she standing to his left, and he squatting. To the left of this pair, a wide hole made by the demolition process exposes the backdrop of the city. Missy gives Sanming a piece of candy, and she squats facing him—he continuously smoking a cigarette. The only diagetic sounds within this minute-long shot are distant car horns and even more distant sounds of mallets striking concrete buildings. Suddenly within the panorama of the cityscape, of which the viewer has access through the gap in the wall in the background, one of the larger buildings falls—hiccupping ash and rubble along its rumbling descent. The two characters stand and turn in the direction of the massive movement and accompanying noise that invades the city view. Sanming gently places his hands on Missy’s arms from behind.

When taken in context of the overall plot of the film, this particular shot narrates an implosion of disparate forces in terms of labor, migration, human trafficking, and environmental destruction that is exposed by the vanishing topography as a result of the Three Gorges Dam. Missy’s original home has now been submerged by the rising waters. It is also revealed in the film that she is a victim of human trafficking because Sanming had originally purchased her from that area. The nostalgic Sanming, though, hopes to return to Shanxi with his estranged wife and continue working in the dangerous coal mines to pay off the debt to the man that purchased Missy from her brother. The predicament of the two characters projects an endemic situation of the economics of the locale—they are physically relocated by the commerce environmentally affecting the area of Fengjie and the economics of an industrializing China.

Still Life encapsulates the environmental side of Jia Zhangke’s larger filmic project. Since the beginning of his career, Jia’s works have sought to expose the evolution of China in relation to rapid economic development, the aesthetic implications of globalization, and the human toll of environmental degradation. Jia’s preoccupation with change allows for the vestiges of human resolve to survive among the shifting socio-economics of contemporary society, all wrought by larger interrelated forces, that are state-sponsored, global, and imposed through economic structures. Ultimately, Jia Zhangke’s filmic project sets to critique the very notion of representing the changes in topography by pushing the limits of narrative and documentary film in turn exposing the conceptual holes in comprehending vast ecological change.

This article offers a reading of Jia Zhangke’s films in relation to how his career is invested in narrating changing topography. Jia, as director, embodies many of the influences he describes. His hometown becomes his first major thematic subject, and he is able to utilize the advancement and availability of digital technologies to craft and promote his work. An introduction to Jia’s early films sets the foundation for a reading of his 2006 work Still Life which will be approached from three perspectives: the heterogeneity of environmental impact understood through the migrant experience, the way in which Jia understands nostalgia as a crisis in signification, and the manner in which the film de-centers the notion of home and homelessness. Finally, the conclusion will demonstrate how Jia’s Still Life, when read against his companion documentary Dong, implodes the boundaries of documentary and narrative. Jia Zhangke’s work exposes the limits of logic in comprehending changes in landscape and engages in the act of narrating topography.  

Hometown, topography, and technology

Jia Zhangke is a member of the generation of young Chinese that experienced first-hand the drastic social and economic transformations of Mainland China. His craft similarly has worked with and negotiated varying forces, such as state censorship and international/domestic recognition. Jia was born in Fenyang, in Shanxi province in 1970, and his place of birth will remain an important aspect in the majority of his films. In various interviews, Jia has said that he believes the notion of a home is of primary importance of an individual’s emotional and rational understanding of the world. Though he admits that there really is not much in Fenyang, he must always come back (Teo 4). 

The first three full-length independent films of Jia Zhangke are generally referred to as The Hometown Trilogy.[2] His first major full length film Pickpocket (or Xiao Wu, 1997) was a project that evolved upon site and became the seminal thematic preoccupation for all his subsequent film.[3] The original intent of the film was a short intended to be about thirty minutes. Upon arriving in his hometown of Fenyang, however, Jia was struck by the changes that had taken place in such a short time as he was studying film in Beijing. The project immediately became a filmic attempt to capture the rapidly changing topography.

The first four shots following the opening credits and title immediately establish the location of the film and the homecoming of the protagonist. The first shot is a close-up of a hand as it strikes a match. A second shot, also a close-up, shows the match as it lights a cigarette in a man’s mouth. The matchbox contains the two Chinese characters “Shan Xi” indicating that the action is taking place in Jia’s home province. A following long shot shows that the man lighting the cigarette is standing on the side of the road. This is the main character, Xiao Wu, and it is revealed in the fourth shot, a counter shot from behind his head, that he is waiting for a bus. Immediately within the first twenty seconds after the opening title, Jia establishes the setting and sets in motion the homecoming of the main character. From here, Xiao Wu will experience the difficulties of returning home, refracting Jia’s malaise as he himself returned to Fenyang after studying in Beijing for several years. 

Jia Zhangke shot Pickpocket in 16mm in just twenty-one days and used a mix of hand-held camera work, long takes, and tracking shots that emphasize the decaying dimensions of the local architecture (often carrying the character chai indicating impending demolition).[4] Sound work also stresses the dominance of the hectic atmospheric noise of the cityscape. A one minute tracking shot follows Xiao Wu riding on the back of a bicycle. Though the bicycle with the two men form the focal point of the shot, they pass along a panorama of crumbling walls, businesses, people, parked bicycles, signs, and general urban items which taken as a whole form the real emphasis of the shot. As the two characters converse, their dialogue competes with the sound of a public service announcement through a loud speaker. The city’s sights and sounds outweigh the importance of the two men on the bicycle.

In another scene, Jia focuses attention on interior architecture in concert with his main character. Earlier in the film, Xiao Wu ventures into a karaoke bar after being rejected by his hometown friend. At the bar he meets an entertainer named Mei Mei. He is awkward in front of her and refuses to sing a karaoke duet, explaining that he is not capable of singing. Later a two and a half minute long take narrates shows Xiao Wu naked and alone in a bathhouse. He begins singing the male part of the duet that he was incapable of singing earlier. As he begins singing, the camera slowly pans upward. The last thirty seconds of the shot focus on the ceiling, walls, of the bathhouse which echo with the voice of Xiao Wu.

Jia’s second film Platform (Zhantai 2000) is more ambitious than Pickpocket, expanding his preoccupation with changes in his hometown Fenyang from the late 1970s to the 1990s. The film charts the progress of this era from the perspective of the interconnected lives of four main characters who are members of a song and dance troupe. They begin by performing propaganda pieces hailing Chairman Mao Zedong, and over the course of the 80s the group mutates into a private group known as the Shenzhen All-stars Rock and Break-dance Electronic Band. Their lives continue alongside socio-political and economic changes experienced in their hometown: for example, the introduction of the one-child policy and electrification of the city. The film ends by asking the question of what these changes actually bring on a personal, cultural, or even psychological level. The final scene, if answering this question, does not champion a positive response.

The last shot is a two-minute long take of the home of two of the characters who are now married and have a child. The wife boils water on a stove while holding the baby and pacing back and forth. The husband is slumped on a chair, apparently in a state of ennui, with a lit cigarette dangling out of his hand. A cacophony of diagetic sound of the stove, the mother speaking to the baby, a radio, and unseen children playing in a courtyard outside is slowly challenged by the crescendo of an extra-diagetic and harsh dissonance. This dissonance mixed with diagetic sound lingers past the black out of the shot and remains for another ten seconds until it fades out. The ending of Platform focuses on disillusionment, particularly when comparing the representation of the lives of youth in the era immediately following reform to their lives as adults.  

Jia Zhangke, like the characters in his works, has been affected by social and technological advancements, and he is able to utilize these changes in relation to production and distribution of his films. He attributes much of the success and innovation of the new generation of independent directors to the digital revolution. In an article in Cahiers du cinéma, Jia pinpoints three areas in which digital technology has improved the technique and status of younger Chinese directors as well as the sophistication of Chinese film viewers:

These three aspects of cinematic evolution of the past decade have, according to Jia, allowed Mainland independent film makers to grow in number (“Trois révolutions” 21-23). Though Jia acknowledges the limitations of digital shooting, he believes that it has given directors more liberty to film as well as explore aesthetic routes.[5]

Jia Zhangke’s third film of the “Hometown Trilogy” titled Unknown Pleasures (Ren Xiao Yao 2002) was shot completely in digital and recounts the adventures of two friends Binbin and Xiao Ji and their meandering purposeless lives among the streets of a town called Datong. Both men are young products of Deng’s Open Door period and did not experience the Maoist past. Neither of them has a job, and both men come from single-parent homes. The film is punctuated by larger geo-political events such as the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter plane and American spy plane off the coast of Hainan in 2001. In the end, both of the dreams of the two men fail, and influenced by the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they decide to hold up a bank with a fake bomb. The plan, which has Binbin enter a bank and Xiao Ji on his motorcycle, goes immediately awry. Binbin is taken into custody, and Xiao Ji takes off on his motorcycle which then breaks down on the highway.    

Jia Zhangke is invested in the nostalgia, ambivalence, and transitional state of China in the 1980s, and his works are also conscious of the globalizing forces at play at the turn of the millennium. His career straddles the divide between the local and the global, so he inhabits a prime position permitting him to explore how global influences affect local lives. His fourth full-length film The World (2004) elucidates the ironies of globalization. The World takes place in an ‘Epcot-esque’ world amusement park located in Beijing. Just as his earlier films concentrate on landscape and architecture, the plot of The World often appears subordinate to much of the mise-en-scène. The park houses miniature models of iconic world structures: the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. The protagonist Tao is a dancer, and her boyfriend Taisheng is one of the security guards working in the park. He is from Shanxi province like many other migrant workers at the park. But migrant work also occurs on a global scale. For example, a Russian dancer named Anna arrives to work in the park, and she and Tao become friends. She wants to quit her job to see her sister but must become a prostitute in order to do this. Thus this simulacrum of the world contains within it the realities of the globalizing world.

In the transition from the “Hometown Trilogy” to The World, the avenue of Jia’s film-making has also undergone a pertinent permutation. Like many directors that fall under the umbrella term “sixth generation” he shot without the approval of the state-owned studio system but then showed his films at international festivals. For production of The World, Jia did approach the Film Bureau. When asked why he decided upon this change, Jia replies,

“I didn’t change; the environment for Chinese filmmakers changed. Because, starting last year [2003], a group of us young directors communicated with the Film Bureau quite a bit; we were fighting for a freer, more relaxed filmmaking environment. Then this year they’ve announced a lot of new policies.” (Jaffee “Interview”) 

Jia continues to cite some of the new policies, mostly a slackening of censor oversight, which has encouraged young filmmakers. Originally film was subject to censoring by the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television. Currently there are regional offices to seek approval (Jaffee “interview”). The irony in Jia’s transition from independent to state approved film-maker is the inversely proportional thematic interest from hometown to the world—i.e. to explore his hometown, he avoided state permission, and to explore the world, he finally turned to the Film Bureau for production.

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.

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. 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.

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] 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.

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.

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.

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] 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.

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.

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.


1. Ecologists warn that the dam will cause massive erosion, endanger local plant and animal species, and has the potential of being extremely disastrous due to the fact that the reservoir runs over two active fault lines. See Mara Hvistendahl’s article in Scientific American titled “China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?” which gives a general overview of some of the debates within the scientific community internationally and in Mainland China. [return to text]

2. Xiao Shan Going Home along with Pickpocket and Platform, take place in Fenyang—Jia’s hometown. All three of these films also use the actor Wang Hongwei for the main character. Xiaoping Lin in his article “Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Trilogy: A Journey Across the Ruins of Post-Mao China” reads Xiao Shan Going Home as part of the trilogy, whereas later secondary sources see Pickpocket, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures as a trilogy of his independent film career.

3. Jia Zhangke will admit later on that although he was not immediately conscious of it at the time, he realized later that the work was heavily influenced by two films that he had immensely enjoyed: Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)  (Berry 40).

4. The significance of chai as signifier of demolition as it pertains to the film Still Life will be further discussed in this article in regards to the notion of home vs. homelessness.

5. For example, Jia is impressed that this technology has been adopted by established directors of the French New Wave such as Agnès Varda and Eric Rohmer whose respective films The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Lady and the Duke (2001) were projected in China via the French embassy (“Le Cinéma Français en Chine” 99).

6. For an interesting look at how mobile phones add intertextual layers to Jia Zhangke’s films, see Michael Fitzhenry’s article “China Art by Phone: Mobile Movies.”

7. An entire study could be done just documenting the various songs (popular Chinese, popular Western, state-sponsored, operatic, etc.) in Jia’s film. Michael Berry’s book Jia Zhangke's 'Hometown Trilogy' : Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures does an excellent job of documenting all influences, not just musical, that operate in Jia’s works. Similarly Kin-Yan Szeto’s article “A Moist Heart: Love, Politics and China’s Neoliberal Transition in the Films of Jia Zhangke” as well as Tonglin Lu’s “Music and Noise: Independent Film and Globalization” explicates much of the theoretical importance of prominent popular songs in his films.

8. Jia Zhangke’s next film 24 City will further play with this dichotomy. The film documents the destruction of a Mao era airplane factory to make way for a high-rise. The film documents the individual stories of those involved with the factory, but half of the interviewees are real workers and the other half are actors. 

9. The title of the film Dong means “East” and is also in Liu Xiaodong’s name.

10. As McGrath points out, the boundary between truth and fiction are even blurred once again when it is taken into account that Han Sanming is also Jia Zhangke’s cousin named Han Sanming. He is a non-professional actor that has appeared in several of Jia’s works. In real life he worked as a coalminer in Shanxi province (“The Cinema of Displacement” 45).

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