Miracle Workers: Amy Taubin on Jia Zhang-Ke

By Taubin, Amy | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Miracle Workers: Amy Taubin on Jia Zhang-Ke


Taubin, Amy, Artforum International


JIA ZHANG-KE IS the moving-picture poet of the Chinese "economic miracle" and of the alienation, surreal conjunctions, wrenching displacements, broken family ties, wild hopes, and unfulfilled expectations that have come in its wake. A "Sixth Generation" moviemaker, he has, at age thirty-seven, five fiction features to his credit, the first four of which--Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), and The World (2004)--bore witness to the transformation of China over the past decade as it was happening and drew their energy, glamour, and pathos from the portrayal of youth. In Still Life (2006), his fifth, which arrives in American theaters this January, the major characters, like the director, are in their early middle age. They yearn to settle down, but the ground continues to be pulled--here, all but literally--from beneath their feet.

Still Life is set in Fengjie, a town on the Yangtze River that has been in an ongoing state of demolition since 2002 to make way for Mao's dream project, the Three Gorges Dam. The town is an extraordinary soundstage, its wreckage yielding a metaphor more complicated and open-ended than the virtual reality of the global theme park in The World and giving rise to images reminiscent of late Cezanne--harsh jagged edges of crumbled buildings like charcoal brushstrokes; light as soft as that enveloping Mont Sainte-Victoire, here the result of granite and cement dust saturating the air. The shots are never labored; their compositions are all the more stunning for being captured seemingly on the fly, whether the camera is moving or at rest amid a landscape of rubble. The comparison to the Neorealism of Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948) is obvious, but Jia heightens our awareness of the documentary reality by underplaying the fictional drama far more than Rossellini--which doesn't make the desire and loss experienced by Jia's characters any less poignant or palpable. What we are seeing is the actual obliteration of a town by crews of workers, many of whom have lived in the very buildings they are bringing down with their pickaxes and sledgehammers. China's economic "miracle" requires the destruction of the past and the severing of ties to its own history.

Still Life is composed of two stories, allowing us two perspectives on what is happening in Fengjie. The more dominant of the two, comprising what we could call the first and third acts, focuses on San-ming--played by Han San-ming, one of the core members of Jia's stock company of actors--a coal miner from Shanxi (where Jia was born and where his first three features are set). San-ming comes to Fengjie in search of his daughter, whom he has never seen, and his wife, whom he purchased from kidnappers and who ran away from him some sixteen years ago. The only address he has for them is in a building already submerged in the widening reservoir above the Three Gorges Dam. While he tries to track them down, he gets a bed in a cheap rooming house--which is itself leveled during the course of the movie--and a job on a wrecking crew. He eventually makes contact with his wife's uncle, only to discover that he has sold her as an indentured servant to a riverboat owner to pay his debts. Most directors would have milked this backstory for melodrama, but in allowing us to piece it together for ourselves from a few fragments of dialogue and from the way that both San-ming and his wife (whom we meet later in the film) seem to regard their circumstances--as sad but in no way out of the ordinary--Jia, if anything, intensifies the emotional impact.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Framed within the two sections devoted to San-ming is the more succinct story of Shen Hong, played by another Jia regular, Zhao Tao, more subdued here than in Jia's earlier movies. (If you've seen The World, you will never forget her extravagantly plaintive quest for a Band-Aid in the spectacularly rocky opening tracking shot.) A nurse, also from Shanxi, she is searching for her husband, Guo Bin, whom she has barely heard from in two years. …

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