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STILL LIFE (SANXIA HAOREN) (director/writer: Jia Zhang-Ke; screenwriters: Na Guan/Jiamin Sun; cinematographer: Yu Likwai; editor: Khung Jinlei; music: Lim Giong; cast: Han Sanming (Himself), Zhao Tao (Shen Hong), Li Zhu Bing (Guo Bing), Wang Hongwei (Wang Dong Ming), Ma Lizhen (Missy Ma), Lan Zhou (Huang Mao); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Xu Pengle/Wang Tianyun/Jia Zhang-Ke; New Yorker Films; 2006-Hong Kong/China-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“A lyrical pic that brilliantly blends together documentary and fantasy to paint an evocative picture of modern China that is free from the usual Red Chinese propaganda.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The eminent Sixth-Generation Chinese auteur, Jia Zhang-Ke (“The World”/’Unknown Pleasures”/”Platform”), one of the world’s best, directs a lyrical pic that brilliantly blends together documentary and fantasy to paint an evocative picture of modern China that is free from the usual Red Chinese propaganda and independent enough from the government to show there’s an outbreak of alienation in China. These subversive political comments has his films banned in China and shown only in Europe and the States.

One of Jia Zhang-Ke’s main protagonists, a coal miner named Han Sanming (the director’s cousin) from the Shanxi Province country town of Fenyang, arrives in the sinking flooded 2,000-year-old town of Fengjie to search for his bought child bride (Ma Lizhen) who abandoned him 16 years ago with his daughter he has never seen. After some difficulty locating her, since her street sunk in the Yangtze River because of the Three Gorges Dam project (the largest hydraulic project in the world, that has caused the displacement of over two million people), Han locates her brother working on a demolition crew and learns his wife is working on a houseboat down river and will return in a few months. While waiting to see his estranged wife, Han gets a job on the demolition crew tearing down all the crumbling buildings.Also arriving inFengjie from her hometown in Shanxi is the young sophisticated and attractive nurse Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), whose construction engineer hubby, Guo Bing (Li Zhu Bing), left her two years ago to take on this construction job and has managed to elude her during that time. The busy Bin is a hard man to track down, but Shen is aided by an archeologist (Wang Hongwei) who is his friend.Though these two stories never quite connect, they give Jia Zhang-Ke a chance to show how these ongoing modernization projects affects the people, leaves the marginalized uprooted and is changing the country’s landscape in a way that is not always for the better.

Using these two personal hardship stories of broken marriage, gives the astute director a chance to observe the scene taking place in China’s industrial heartland and how globalization and urban renewal has come to China so that cell phones, White Rabbit toffee candy (brand named products) and bottled water are just as part of the Chinese scene as they are in Los Angeles.

The pic shows the universal problems of progress causes displacement and leaves those not in a position to adjust marginalized from society, and that the new laissez-faire form of capitalism is just as harsh as was the Communist system. What the observant film can’t do is get us emotionally involved in the subjects, who appear to be victims of the system but victims who are survivors ready to pay their dues to move on with their lives that have been temporarily jarred. Though filmed with a light touch, the pic still feels at times ponderous.

Still Life won the Gold Lion at Venice in 2006.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”