Jia Zhangke. China. 2006.

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Long takes and slow pans abound in China’s “Sixth Generation”  film-maker Jia Zhangke’s monument to the uprooted peasants from along the Yangtze River, who were forced to relocate and abandon their homes for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

For a film with so many incredibly evocative and loaded images, perhaps the first one you see on screen is the most surprising of all. That is, the official logo of the ‘Film Bureau State Administration of Radio Film and TV’, which shows government approval and, therefore, distribution permission, granted for the film. For a country notorious for its media control and quieting of dissident voices, it comes as quite a shock that the government would approve the release of a film documenting the negative consequences suffered from its monumental construction of the Three Gorges Dam. But according to director Jia Zhangke, whose previous films bar one were all made outside China’s state-run film bureaucracy, and therefore illegal to be exhibited anywhere in China, the reason why this one was not shut down was simply that the “impact of the Three Gorges project is phenomenal. It’s not something the government can cover up.” As of 2008, 1.24 million people had been relocated according to state figures, and an additional 4 million will be encouraged to move by the year 2020.

The film follows mirrored stories of two individuals trying to find someone they have lost. The first story is of Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi province, who has returned to Fengjie in search of his wife and daughter, who he has not seen for sixteen years. The opening shot of the film flows through a packed boat of Chinese peasants, immersed in smoking, chatting, arm wrestling and playing cards. Han sits alone at the front of the boat separated from them. Just before the boat docks he is pulled into a room for a magic show and pushed into a chair. The show is about how to magically change paper into money, and money from one currency to another. The secret is not revealed, and all the audience are charged for their tuition. Thus the themes and conflicts for the film are all beautifully set up within its opening scene.

Our relationship with Han moves in some interesting directions as the movie progresses, and as information about his past comes to light, we discover shades of complexity in his character. Perhaps for Western audiences, it comes as quite a surprise that this calm and gentle man had only came to Fengjie originally to buy his wife, though this is not so uncommon or shameful in China. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his character comes in his involvement with the dam. Due to relocation, he cannot find his wife or daughter, as their old home is now submerged in water. What is interesting is that not only does he not express any anger towards the dam’s construction, but he also takes up a job destroying the remaining buildings in the area to help finance his search for his wife and daughter. Practicality and survival have taken the place of high morals.

Han makes a young friend called Brother Mark (Zhou Lin) in one of the most telling relationships in the story. Mark is first seen staring into a TV screen showing Chow Yun Fat lighting a cigar with a burning American Dollar Bill. Mark imitates this, lighting a cigarette with a burning piece of paper, while mimicking his lines. Theatricality and the illusions of the spectacles of cinema and modern culture, and the media’s promise and promoted desire for wealth, are all bought into by Mark - even if he only has paper instead of real money. They make for a bizarre couple, though both seem to embody missing parts of the other, one is lacking grounding, the other aspiration. Money recurs as a theme in the film, uniting Han with another labourer whose hometowns are both printed on the back of banknotes. They inspect both notes, each telling the other theirs looks beautiful, though they could equally be talking about the money itself than the image printed on it.

A parallel story is told about a richer couple estranged from each other, following Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), also from Shanxi, who is in Fengjie in search of her husband. She searches for him with one of his old friends, following leads through factories and hotels.  A key scene finds them together at a dance overlooking the Yangtze River and a newly constructed bridge, which was originally dreamt up by Chairman Mao. The man behind its construction has brought his VIP guests to witness its spectacle. He wonders why its lights aren’t illuminated, and phones someone to switch them on. He counts down and waves his hand over the bridge to make it come to life with light. A scene reminiscent of La Haine in which poor youths try to get the Eiffel Tower to light up with the click of their fingers. For them, it doesn’t. But tellingly with the rich elite, it sparkles into life in all its splendour and opulence. Shen Hong eventually finds hinds her husband, knowing he has been busy with other women, and asks for a divorce at the site of the dam in a beautifully framed shot with her stoical figure on the left of the frame with the Yangtze, and his on the right, a figure of corruptness in front of the dam.

We return to Han’s thread for the finale. Mark has been making money with a group of other boys as part of a government paid gang to chase resistant residents from their land. The money is good, and he asks Han to join them, but he refuses the job on moral grounds. Mark is later found dead by Han, buried underneath some building rubble along with his dreams of wealth. Han finally finds his wife, who tells him his daughter now lives in a different city. He wants his wife to come with him to live with him and their daughter, though she is now in the possession of a ferryman, who demands a high figure for her freedom. The film ends with a beautiful scene in which Han tells his current workmates that he is going back to his hometown to be a miner (where he can earn enough money to afford to reclaim his wife in a year’s time). They are all interested when they hear of the pay, which is four-times their current wages, and decide they will come with him, happily clinking glasses in celebration. Han then relates that two people died at his mine just before he left, and dozens die every year. They grow quiet and pensive, weighing their lives against the increased risk of death the higher salary of the coal mines brings. Their faces are solemn and their eyes cast down. They clink glasses again in a binding “cheers”, though it is more a morbid union than a celebration. They walk off through the town they tore down together, as Han pauses to see a man walking a tightrope between two large buildings in the distance. He doesn’t stay to see if he makes it safely to the other side. Nor do we with Han.

Shaun McDonald

See Howard Schumann's review of Still Life here.
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