Laura CliffordHan Sanming (Sanming Han) has spent the last 16 years working the coalmines in China. He decides to head back home to find his long-estranged wife and daughter but when he gets there he finds the town being dismantled and flooded by the enormous Three Gorges Dam project. He takes a job helping with the demolition while continuing his search for his family in “Still Life.”
Director Jia Zhang-Kie, who brought us the sumptuous The World,” brings his artistic eye to the famous dam project and the magnificent landscapes of central China while telling the simple story of Han’s search for his family. The combination of one man’s mission and the beautiful backdrop makes for a quiet but engaging story that captivates the mind and heart.
As Han makes his inquiries about his wife’s whereabouts he meets all manner of people, both helpful and hostile. He integrates himself into the laborer role of deconstructing his rapidly flooding former hometown of Fengjie, eventually finding his ex-wife. They try to rekindle their past life but the changes each experienced over the years prove too profound. Meanwhile, Nurse Shen Hong (Tao Zhao) also returns to Fengjie to find her husband, missing for the past three years. These very personal stories amid the monumental changes taking place in the region make Still Life” a unique bit of storytelling.
The elegant look of “Still Life,” gorgeously photographed by Nelson Yu Lik-wai, comes with the deft combo of simple articles, such as a 10-yuan banknote, held up against the stark beauty of the rapidly flooding landscape. Director Jia uses this device with stunning affect. This is not the kind of film that will be a seen at the local multiplex. In fact, you are going to have to search for it (much like Han searching for his wife) but the effort is worthwhile.
Jia is proving to be a world-class filmmaker with a brilliant eye for both the small details and the big picture. The simplicity of the story dominates the foreground but it is Jia’s ability to set it against the gorgeously composed background that makes “Still Life” a pleasure. The acting is minimal and conveys the tale with a natural touch. Han is the main focus of the story and you feel his hope and frustration as he splits his time between his search and his labor. Nurse Shen’s story is much slighter and less fulfilling than Han’s and could have been dispensed without detrimental affect. Still, the beauty of the film is well worth the price of admission. I give it a B+.
Laura gives "Still Life" an A-.
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