With Beijing putting the finishing touches on an Olympics site that's designed to shock and awe the rest of the world, this may be an appropriate time to travel farther inland, where not everybody is caught up in Olympics fever. Director Jia Zhang-ke is generally considered the best thing that's happened to Chinese film in the last 10 years or so, and he's made the dislocations wrought by China's Great Leap Forward into capitalist frenzy something of a specialty. But those dislocations have never seemed as brutally literal as they do in Still Life, a quietly devastating drama set in Fengjie, about 150 miles upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River. Five times as wide as Hoover Dam, the newly completed Three Gorges Dam may qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the World, but to the over one million people who were displaced by the rising river, it was closer to an H-bomb.
Thousands of towns and villages were submerged, whole cities reduced to rubble, the former occupants scrambling for higher ground, like rats. And Jia saw an opportunity to test the waters, so to speak, see where the current was taking the region of the country that he grew up in. The movie opens with a long, slow pan along the passengers of a commercial riverboat, who float past us like so much flotsam and jetsam. Finally, we land on Sanming (Han Sanming), a coal miner who's returned to Fengjie looking for his long-gone wife and his never-met daughter. Through the eyes of this soft-spoken everyman, we take in the damage that's been done. ("That little island out there," he's told, "that was your street.") Then, just as we get used to Sanming, the movie gets handed over to Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse who's also looking for a departed spouse. Sanming and Shen Hong cross paths but never meet.
And that's about all there is, in the way of a story. But Still Life is never boring, if you keep your eyes and ears open. With mountains in the background and the swelling river in the foreground, Fengjie is a cinematographer's dream come true, and Jia's cinematographer, Yu Likwai, makes the most of it, capturing the visual grandeur of messing with Mother Nature on such a colossal scale. There are also little messages that Jia is sending our way, as when a magician, early on, turns a handful of blank paper into Euros, then into Yuan. Some of Jia's symbols are difficult to decipher. There's a UFO sighting that may signify the alienation that Fengjie's residents feel from a world they thought they understood. Or maybe it signifies something else entirely. The movie's overall point can't be missed, though: It's possible to drown a town that, for over two thousand years, has been standing in the way of progress.