--Hao Sanming's closing words in Still LifeJudging by the critical reviews, the movie's biggest flaw was its inclusion of an alien spaceship in an otherwise naturalistic film. There were two scenes. In the first, a distant projectile of some sort -- a small blip in the misty sky -- flies slowly across screen. In the second, a postmodern black tower like something out of the Guggenheim takes off before our eyes. Both are confusing and -- to put it bluntly -- random. Yet I liked them, probably more than I should. Such is the power and beauty, however austere and doleful, of this enchanting film: even the parts that don't make sense -- ostensibly included to not make sense -- elicit surprise, wonder and delight.
That's how mood films -- otherwise lethargic and unconcerned with plot -- get you. Personally, I was hooked from the first sequence -- a telegenic sweep of the faces of passengers (mostly migrant workers) on a ferry floating down the Yangtze in central China -- to the last. But be warned: Still Life requires a long attention span. Because while the film, at 108 minutes, doesn't drag beyond reason, it has its slow moments. Maybe that's why the spaceships are there: to ask, ever so discreetly (or not discreetly at all), its viewers to focus. (I like this explanation better though: it's showing us that one day we too will have to pack our things and exit a place we love, namely planet Earth. How sorrowful, yet how plainly necessary. Seen this way, the exodus from rivertowns like Fengjie is less a tragedy -- with all those political implications -- than a matter of fact.)
Another thing: the film concerns itself with the impoverished and displaced -- literally, as more than a million people are getting displaced due to the Three Gorges Dam project, and this movie is set in a city about to drown in the Yangtze's overflow -- yet doesn't show the people as impoverished and displaced. They're not defined by poverty, never wallow in it. That's not to say they don't suffer -- "Life hasn't been easy for me, either," a man says to a wife he hasn't seen in two years -- but just that they don't analyze their suffering, which would invite the more crippling aspects of distress. They are not sentimental about the destruction of history -- they leave that for the audience. They occupy themselves with work, food and drink, and that passes the days. "We can't stay here and wait for death," a woman on her way to Guangdong says. There is no small amount of humanity in the characters -- the Chinese title translates as "The Good People of Three Gorges," after all -- like the archaeologist trying to uncover one last artifact before it's washed away forever or the demolitionists who swing hammers all day for 50 RMB, moving from one building to the next, knowing they'll soon knock down their own home.
Perhaps because death serves as a backdrop -- quite explicitly, the death of the city of Fengjie, with all its culture and history (paraphrasing a local bureaucrat in the movie: "A city with 2,000 years of history is wiped out in two years... we need to adjust our ways") -- the poignancy of being is exposed at its rawest. Here is life writ large.
Still Life is the type of movie you just don't see made in the U.S. anymore, or at least made well -- a silly thing to say, I realize, since the movie is so distinctly Chinese it discourages comparison with Hollywood, but you'll just have to accept this statement. Maybe that's reason enough to give it a look.
POSTSCRIPT: Recommended reviews: Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian; Manohla Dargis, NY Times; J. Hoberman, Nashville Scene.