Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is set during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, and it was released the same year as the dam became operational — in 2006. Among the project’s many achievements, such as being the largest hydropower plant in the world, the China Three Gorges Corporation had then listed down the resettlement of nearly 1.13 million people as a world record.
Still Life focuses on the impact of the construction and the resulting resettlement drive on the socio-economic fabric of the county of Fengjie. It suffices to say that Zhangke’s style of mixing documentary and fiction does not adhere to the state’s narrative of achievement, rather in telling the human side of the story, Zhangke highlights the issues the Chinese government failed to mention while presenting the resettlement figures as a world record. Still Life calls out the resettlement drive for what it is — displacement.
The film follows two characters in their search for their families in Fengjie. The first plotline sees Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi province, arrive at Fengjie on a ferry cruising along the Yangtze river, carrying a motley crew of individuals, mostly migrant workers. Han Sanming has not seen his wife and daughter for over sixteen years, and the only way to find them is an address Sanming’s wife Missy Ma had left him when she ran away from Shanxi. Unable to locate his family, he joins a team of workers assigned with demolishing buildings to support himself during his stay in Fengjie.
In the second story, Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao), a nurse in Shanxi province, comes looking for her husband who she hasn’t seen in the past two years and has only heard from him only once when he called her up to check if she was alive.
Both the characters come from two different economic backgrounds, and the film rightly chooses to show the direct impact of the Three Gorges Dam on Sanming’s quest, rather than on Shen Hong’s. The hydel project plays out more like an exotic backdrop for Shen Hong’s story — it serves a more metaphorical purpose. And, it is not by coincidence that the documentary element is more prominent in Sanming’s story than in Hong’s. However, that does not mean that Hong’s quest for her husband does not give us any insight into the lives of people in Fengjie. In fact, it is through Hong’s interactions with other characters (both those living on the margins on the verge of being displaced and those benefitting from the demolition of settlements) that we get a clear picture of how differently people of different classes are being affected by the project.
Still Life is an evocative presentation of the powerlessness of ordinary human beings at the face of a state’s ambitions and the (consequential) changing economic and social dynamics — after all, how can people expect to build or salvage something in a place crumbling into dust and debris and where a power less arbitrary than fate, but as ruthless, is at work? Despite such bleakness, Still Life is filled with moments utterly humane and, sometimes, humorous. In an early scene, Sanming is duped by a cabbie (a motorbike rider actually) who hides the fact that the address Sanming is looking for has been flooded. However, later in an act of sympathy, he secures Sanming a lodge on discount, to which the lodge owner remarks, “You are siding with the customers.”
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