Utne Reader Film Reviews, November-December 2008

| November-December 2008

The People’s Filmmaker
Still Life
(New Yorker Films; on DVD)

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke chronicles his country’s blind rush toward capitalistic excess with a wry, exquisite eye. While many of his compatriots create dazzling spectacles that celebrate China’s achievements—Zhang Yimou’s Olympics opening ceremony, for example—Jia quietly and artfully captures the nation’s reckless disregard for its citizens in his dramatic features. From his earlier independent work, such as Pickpocket (1997) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), to the more recent Still Life, which won the top prize at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival, Jia’s films track the lost rural souls the country is leaving behind.

A provocative tour de force set around China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam project, Still Life focuses on a man and a woman on parallel searches for their families. Less a traditional story than a strange and lyrical travelogue with a sharp political edge, the film expresses its rancor through portraiture and landscape: Witness the sullen face and toughened body of the coal-miner protagonist and the stunning images of half-demolished buildings and piles of rubble that he passes.

Of Jia’s seven films, only Still Life and The World (2004) have been officially approved for showing in China (the others are widely available on pirated DVDs). Despite the film’s unabashed critique of government corruption (relocation officers beating up residents) and an ultra modernizing China (shots of a gaudy, glittering bridge counterpoised with working-class drudgery), it seems cultural officials are beginning to acknowledge the rising auteur as one of their own—perhaps to watch him more closely. —Anthony Kaufman