Very slight SPOILERS here.
After being impressed with A Touch of Sin I decided to work back into Zhangke Jia’s catalog. I’ve only otherwise seen 24 City before. Still Life is my favorite of his that I’ve seen so far.
Jia’s camera doesn’t so much investigate or wander as it scans, like in this opening shot where the credits roll and the camera pans and dollies across a huge group of people on a boat, eventually going out of focus again:
In some ways this emphasizes the crowded frame, but Jia doesn’t seem to take any pains to stress claustrophobia or chaotic overcrowdedness. If anything it’s frequently the opposite: Still Life is often an empty film.
Instead, these shots – and there are many of them – serve to support one of the central themes: searching. Like Jia’s two lead characters who seek a past love, here Jia’s camera tries to find its central protagonist.
Still Life is atypical in its use of parallel narratives. We’re pretty trained to think, should a film show us to people in different spaces both on a journey, that they’ll eventually meet. It’s often the innate purpose of crosscutting. That’s not the case here. Instead we get the anticipation of the collision of narratives ,and that anticipation is left unresolved. Such a convergence would be too neat for a film that prides itself on small digression and thematic frames as much as narrative frames.
Another strength of Still Life are the extras. There’s this faux-magician (/con man) and the guy walking behind him-
-these guys who don’t all add to the story, but who all sit and eat throughout a conversation, injuries unexplained (or only hinted at later), their presence a part of Chinese life and nothing more-
-and these characters who argue over reparations for a construction accident (itself perhaps the largest theme in the film):
The strength here isn’t only that these extras exist but that Jia blocks them in often interesting ways and puts them frequently at the forefront of the composition.
Construction could be a subtitle for the film. It’s omnipresent throughout, either in the form of background that serves as either another character or distraction to the main action (how gorgeous is that second frame below?):
Or as show of intruding glamour, like here when a magnificent bridge boldly interrupts the otherwise nonshowy landscape and is turned on only as a show of power:
But construction is mostly in the film in the form of action, building, and rubble:
These shots remind me of some neo-realist films (Germany: Year Zero, for example), where the rebuilding process (emphasis on “process”) or a frank look at the destruction of the period are as important as the progression of the protagonist.
At times Still Life reminds me of a Reygadas film. There are gorgeously enigmatic, surreal moments (enigmatic, but still thematic):
And extras (again) that have the physicality of those in, say, Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux: