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Still Life

Still LifeAgainst a background of the flooding
  of Fengjie — a 2,000-year-old
  Chinese town
to build the highly-
  controversial Three Gorges hydro-
  electric dam, a man searches for his
  wife and a woman for her husband
  in the fascinating film Still Life...

ON THE YANGTZE FERRY coal miner Han Sanming (Zhao Tao, playing the lead character) from Shanxi is travelling to Fengjie to find Missy Ma, the wife who deserted him 16 years before, taking their daughter with her. When the ferry docks, visitors are fleeced by the Wuhan Magical Art Troupe that "welcomes everyone to the mysteries of supernatural power".

Han is tricked by a motorcycle rider who agrees to take him to Granite Street, which turns out to be already under water, and then asks for more to take Han to the Relocation Office to find out where his wife moved to [1.3 million people have been displaced by China's Three Gorges Dam project — Ed]. He then takes Han to a lodging house owned by He Zhongming (Wang Qingsong), who helps Han track down his obstructive and aggressive brother-in-law.

Throughout the film, which takes advantage of the spectacular landscape of the Three Gorges region, the demolition goes on as properties are taken down and the area cleared to prepare for the final stage of flooding.

The town is having the heart ripped out of it and the only hindrance to the old town disappearing forever under the water is the discovery of some Western Han Dynasty artefacts at an archaeological dig.

A vivid and absorbing tale of two individuals trying to keep up with the dizzying pace of change in 21st Century China who never meet but whose lives cross, Still Life was the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 2006. The two contemplative and compassionate stories offer a revelatory, thought-provoking portrait of people adrift in a world they no longer recognise.

As the buildings come down, a motto is clearly seen on a wall: "Try Hard". White-clad men spray the rubble and, silhouetted through a gaping window of a derelict house, a young boy sings: "Even if it's only for one day; make my dreams come true; I'll always be true to you; whatever it takes I'll see it through."

A woman who offers Han one of her girls tells him that Missy Ma is working on the Wanzhou Highway. Han has also befriended 'Brother Mark' who works on the fringes of the underworld and with whom he exchanges mobile numbers. Mark says: "Present day society doesn't suit us because we're too nostalgic" and commiserates with Han for losing a wife for whom he paid 3,000 yuan. Cue a song: "Waves flow, waves pound; The river runs for a thousand miles; It surges through our world of woes like a cleansing torrent." And so, tragedy beckons...

Meanwhile, in another part of the town, Shen Hong is searching for her husband, Guo Bin, who is also from Shanxi and from whom she has not heard for over two years. There is a beautiful image of her in a yellow blouse, watching a strange light cross the sky — one of the surreal moments of Still Life that symbolise departure.

Shen Hong approaches Liu, the manager of the engineering works where her husband was once employed, but he has not seen Guo Bin. He puts her in touch with Wang Dongming, who knew her husband before the works closed down a few years before. She walks through the town, evocative music playing as she looks across the valley to the tall white buildings clinging to the green slopes.

Wang Dongming invites her to stay at his apartment where he has an intriguing line of clocks and watches of all shapes and sizes. From his window there is an amazing view to a concrete structure where children still play unconcerned.

While Shen Hong is out with Wang, a bridge is lit up in a brilliant arc of light. A soft-focus image of a car driving away from the bridge through amber lighting is magical. Cue another song: "What's got into my eyes so I can't see your distant shadow…?" As she tracks down her errant husband, Shen Hong has a surprise in store for him.

With long, uninterrupted takes, Jia Zhangke subjects the changing landscape to intense lyrical scrutiny, illuminating the relationship between individuals and their environment and the strange co-existence of man-made squalor alongside so much natural beauty.

Still Life is a memorable film and a poignant acknowledgment of both the changing times and the loss of a way of life; with believable characters and exquisite filming, this DVD is destined for discerning collectors. Screenwriter/Director is Jia Zhang-Ke; Director of Photography is Yu Likwai; Art Director: Liang Jingdong, Liu Qiang; Music Composer: Lim Giong; Sound Designer is Zhang Yang; Editor is Kong Jinlei.

At 37, Jia Zhangke has been hailed by The New York Times as "one of the world's most important filmmakers". Still Life was released theatrically by the BFI in February 2008, coinciding with a retrospective of Jia Zhangke's work at BFI Southbank.

A film by Jia Zhangke, Still Life is now available on DVD (released 25 August, 2008) at a RRP of £19.99. Catalogue No: BFIVD753 | Certificate 15 | Mandarin Language with English Subtitles | 109 minutes.

Special Features — Feature commentary by Tony Rayns | Dong (Jia Zhangke, 2006, 66 minutes) a documentary companion piece to Still Life on painter Liu Xiaodong and his subjects: male labourers from Still Life and female entertainment workers in Bangkok | Newly-Translated English Subtitles* | Illustrated booklet with essays by Chris Berry and Jia Zhangke and interviews with Jia Zhangke.

*This DVD release of Still Life has been awarded a 15 Certificate by the BBFC as the feature English subtitles translate to stronger language than appeared in its PG-rated UK theatrical release.

BFI DVDs are available from the Filmstore at BFI Southbank, all good DVD retailers, by mail order from 020 7815 1350 or online at

"Still Life is a memorable film and a poignant acknowledgment of both the changing times and the loss of a way of life; with believable characters and exquisite filming, this DVD is destined for discerning collectors" — MotorBar