Still Life: IFC Center, Now Playing
1. Zach Campbell's fine blog entry zeroes in on an important question about Jia: what is he making films about? Is he telling stories about people, or about social and political change? I think it's fair to say that Still Life wouldn't have the necessary dramatic focus to succeed as a character drama if the social context were diminished; likewise, its texture of small observations about the social changes wrought by the Three Gorges Dam doesn't have enough direction to give the film its organization. And yet neither of these aspects is given short shrift: Jia cares about both the human stories and the social document enough to give the film a pleasing shape from either angle. I agree with Zach's suggestion that the film can be fully appreciated only as a form of play or tension between the kind of storytelling associated with stories about individuals, and the kind of film form associated with social observation.
2. One important fact about Jia that I don't believe has been discussed too much: he's really quite the entertainer. Unlike some of today's leading art-film lights, he doesn't ask the audience to dip into its reserves of patience or endurance: he wants everyone to have a good time. For instance:
a. He likes comedy, even routines, even tired old ones. Example: the deadpan timing of Sanming using his switchblade to turn the tables on the bully trying to shake him down for money. Or: the way that Sanming's brother-in-law's entourage enters the frame during the first boat scene: one at a time, each one eating noodles. Or: the resort to formula in establishing a comic-relief character by means of his Chow Yun-Fat imitation, then establishing the character's connection with Sanming via the shtick of their calling each other's cell phones to hear their ringtones. Or: the time-honored play of reprising that cell-phone shtick later in a serious context. Or: the amusing bit with the fan that turns left and right to cover the entire room, but refuses to spin. Or: Sanming's brother-in-law interrupting a conversation with repeated attempts to light a cigarette, eventually prompting Sanming to light it for him.
b. He peppers the film with manifestations of the uncanny. Some of these are so unreal that they stick out: the modernist building that becomes a rocket ship, the UFO over the water, the tightrope walker. Some are more plausible but still a surprise: the wall that falls over in the background as Sanming wanders Fengsie; later, the larger-scale shot of a demolished building collapsing in the cityscape behind the reunited husband and wife; the circuit board shorting out as Hong Shen bandages the injured worker; the costumed opera performers sitting in the corner of a room for no obvious reason. At least one uncanny effect is fully set up, but still stuns with its magnitude: the bridge that illuminates upon command, because a boss wants to entertain partygoers.
c. He has an overall sense of showmanship. An angry-looking boy puncuates a scene by entering a room, lighting up a cigarette, then leaving. Prostitutes make a dramatic, staggered appearance on a patio when summoned by a madam. Hong Shen uses a hammer to shatter a lock gracefully, with the aid of an elliptical action cut that opens the locked cabinet like magic.
d. Without meaning to undercut the gravity of Jia's social concerns, I think it's fair to include the film's many specific social observations as a category of entertainment. Jia uses the social commentary in a structural way, to give a little punch to scenes that would otherwise depict the wanderings of the characters in a languid, Antonioniesque manner. Each random encounter is introduced via one of the many social or economic consequences of the Three Gorges project: companies going bankrupt, demolition work, an endless supply of injured workers and displaced persons. It is perhaps easier to observe how Jia uses the social fallout of Three Gorges to organize the narrative than it is to determine what political position he might hold. In any case, there is no clear place to draw a line between the film's personal and social concerns: not only are the personal stories built around topical material, but the film also integrates social observation into its system of meting out pleasure to the viewer.
3. The sheer beauty of Jia's visual style tends to overwhelm me. On my second viewing of Still Life, I was struck by how much Jia relied on a single visual motif, which you can see several times in the illustrations for Chris Bourne's blog entry. This signature composition features a lead character in the foreground, usually from the waist or the knees up, usually from a slightly depressed angle; the water in the Three Gorges valley in the near background; and mountains or buildings on the other side of the valley rearing up to fill most of the top of the frame. Jia uses long lenses routinely, which has the effect of making the background larger and more present. This shot, which surely occurs twenty times in the film, maybe more, is typical of the way Jia generally composes one-shots; here, however, he weds his visual predispositions to the characteristics of his location with a fixity that I find unusual. Every quality of this shot, from its serenity to its sense of spectacle to its shared emphasis on foreground and background, seems to apply to Jia's art in general. But, more than just a mission statement, the shot is invoked in an almost ritualistic way, and this sense of visual ritual (which recalls the repetitive quality of the theme park imagery in The World - I don't feel a big transition from the artifice of that film's environment to the natural settings of Still Life, as Daniel Kasman does) is itself part of the experience that Jia offers.
Jia has another compositional tendency that one sees in all his films: a desire to unbalance the composition of two-shots, with one character a little closer to the camera than the other, and more massive in the frame. These shots are also usually from the waist or knees up, and have a contained quality, with both characters surrounded by a bit of space and creating a modest but distinct diagonality. The composition has a bit of 50s Ray-Sirk excitement about it, and isn't exactly in keeping with the spirit of today's art film, which often favors symmetrical compositions with minimal dramatic charge. Apart from the great beauty of these shots, their dynamism and diagonality is a call-out to a classical entertainment tradition that isn't so common on the world cinema scene at the moment.
4. The narrative structure of Still Life is amusingly reflexive, when you think about it. The first movement of the film is devoted to Sanming's story, and culminates with his decision to wait in Fengsie for his wife's boat to return, rather than pursue her. While Sanming is waiting, Jia has time to squeeze in Hong Shen's story, which runs its course between the 42 and 79-minute marks. Then he picks up Sanming again as his long wait comes to an end. So Jia evokes the passage of time without making the audience wait along with his patient protagonist.