Opening at the Starz FilmCenter is a movie from China called Still Life. If you caught the documentary Manufactured Landscapes on the art house circuit last year, you will remember scenes of the Three Gorges dam being built in China. Behind it, villages are being swallowed up, their residents hired for low wages to demolish the buildings so that ships won’t get entangled.
Against this potentially metaphoric backdrop, director Zhang Ke Jia tells two stories of prodigal love. In both cases, the lover is returning from long ago and far away, only to discover that the object of their affection is no longer who they remembered.
There are many well-chosen shots and scenes for film students to deconstruct. My favorite is a powerful image of a very high bridge, a storey or two below the level of the camera at a rooftop party; one of the attendees lights up the bridge at dusk with a phone call. Some of the more puzzling shots involve cheap special effects of UFOs and, at the end, a tightrope walker.
These little photographic mysteries are fun to contemplate, but they don’t add up to a very satisfying whole. I’ve read some other reviews (many of them glowing — some even putting Still Life in their top ten!) where what seems to have impressed critics is the very idea of people being paid to demolish their villages before the reservoir swallows them.Still Life is probably the first they’ve heard of Three Gorges, and I think they attribute its crazy reality to this film. Jia is smart to set it as his backdrop, but people give him too much credit.
What I found most disappointing about Still Life is how cheap it looks. The movie was shot on video, which in itself is forgivable. But Jia has no sense of dramatic blocking or cinematography; it looks like amateur video. There are no closeups on faces, just medium shots of squarely framed actors, blocked as though by a high school dramaturge. The editing is static and choppy. And if not for the language barrier, I think the performances would even seem fitful and stilted.
A previous film of Jia’s called The World has come highly recommended by critics I trust. And Still Life won top honors at the Venice Film Festival in 2006. Perhaps Jia is a genius and “amateur” is the style he chose for this film. I’ll leave that possibility open.
But having seen only Still Life, his style seems genuinely amateur, and not the clever trick of a genius.