January 14, 2008

A Still Life Less Ordinary

Chinese director Jia Zhangke on hovering between the state and subversion

By Vadim Rizov

River trance: Han Sanming in Still Life (Photo: New Yorker Films)

Who does Jia Zhangke make movies for? Riding the mainstream aesthetic wave of hardcore art fag filmgoing, his films offer minimalist performances, no obvious dramatic beats and immaculate long tracking and static shots whose value is almost purely formal. Without political stakes, he could be China's answer to latter-day Gus Van Sant, Bela Tarr or any of contemporary film festivals' leading lights.

But Jia is political in a way those other filmmakers aren't: From the moment he became an underground filmmaker (in China, a nebulous term denoting someone who -- whether through bypassing censors or failing to purchase a quota number from a studio -- has somehow avoided official channels without necessarily having their work banned) to his current status as above-ground filmmaker, Jia's work has always been charged with the burden of offering not only superb aesthetic choices but also speaking truth to official Chinese power.

The typically grim subject of Still Life is the forced relocation of 1.5 million people for the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, a dream project since the epoch of Chairman Mao. Jia's depiction of the downside of new sources of power and economic development was met with some ambivalence by Chinese officials, understandably perturbed by -- for starters -- the many scenes showcasing the dynamiting and demolition of entire towns -- walls, buildings, the whole lot. Scarier yet, the scenes are real, and -- shot above ground or not -- obtained with a considerable degree of bureaucratic harassment.

"Still Life was made like a documentary," Jia told The Reeler in an interview conducted while he was in town for last fall's New York Film Festival screening of Useless, his follow-up real documentary. "We were just waiting for the detonation to happen. When they were there, the authorities sent a team of people to follow us around, but they realized that the scenes of detonation and destruction were very dangerous. And it was very hot, so the people just stopped following us. It gave us all this freedom to film whatever we wanted."

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Did even token interference bother him? Jia -- who seems either careful about or tired of discussing the problem -- didn't seem to think it affected the quality of his work. "They didn't have any kind of official reason to deny us permission to shoot [in the destroyed areas]," he said, "But they would give excuses like saying there was a virus going on there right now, so maybe we would need some kind of official permission. The only way to get away from that is to go ahead and shoot it and not care about the authorities."

This publicly blase attitude to official interference may be one reason Jia is a poster child for art-damaged festival viewers rather than activist muckrakers: He's no one's spokesman. Another is his resistance to being cast as a national filmmaker. If anything, he's a regionalist bypassing familiar images of Beijing's capitalist expansion for the countryside. Forget about the 2008 Olympics, with Chinese authorities frantically declaring war on everything from official corruption to litter; that's not the face of Jia's China. "I think of my films in Beijing, and then go to my old province, Shanxi," he said. "I feel that Beijing is not representative of a Chinese city; it's a very special city, but my old province is more representative of how people live and go about their daily lives in China."

Yet Jia seems to be aware that his signifiers can be so local and unknowable to Western outsiders that decoding them requires oddly specific questions. In one of Still Life's best scenes, two characters play their cell-phone ringtones for each other, and while it's infinitely amusing to hear tinny renditions of cheesy songs about the Yangtze, there's obviously something more going on.

"That music is lifted from this TV series in 1983 starring Chow Yun-Fat, called Shanghai Bund, which was really popular in China then," Jia explained. "Part of the song talks about the Yangtze River, which is part of the Three Gorges River, so I felt it was really appropriate to go back to that series. The other ringtone -- the one the main male character plays -- is lifted from a Chinese TV series made in 1990, a state-made drama. The main gist of that series is telling people to just go on living in peaceful co-existence with one another, so that reflects the state of mind of the middle-age male character -- trying to find peace in his life -- and for the other, younger character, the one who's a fan of Chow Yun-Fat, uses that music because there's a sense of adventure and trying to be different."

Ringtones as character psychology: The funniest thing about this scene, once you know all the references, is that the character seeking serenity through state propaganda is the same one who's had his entire life displaced by another Chinese state project. But the irony is sublimated into a typically artful, static shot. Jia's politics might arouse only the most hardcore formalists; whether or not he seduces them into such a trance that they ignore the politics altogether is a chicken-egg conundrum that may never be resolved.

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