Beautiful Ugliness: The Aesthetics of Jia Zhangke's Film _Still Life_

Beautiful Ugliness:  The Aesthetics of China in Jia Zhangke’s Film Still Life

I just showed the movie Still Life (sanxia haoren) by Chinese director Jia Zhangke to my Dartmouth FSP students.  The viewing conditions were not ideal.  I suggest to anyone who wishes to view this film that they do so in as dark a room as possible.  The film itself is very dark, and so are the people.  I mean visually dark, but there is also a darkness to the subject matter and the characters.  Be warned, this is not a happy film.

The story takes place in the hot summer in a few small towns along the Yangzi River in Sichuan, where the famous Three Gorges are located.  The Three Gorges Dam is in process of being completed and towns are being vacated and buildings demolished.  People are leaving to greener pastures in southern and coastal China.  The first third of the film focuses on a man who once lived in a small rivertown, where he paid 3000 RMB for a wife.  She left him after bearing a daughter.  He went off to Shanxi, where he found work in the coal mines.  Now, ten years later, he is back to look for his wife and daughter.  Well, I won’t bore you with the plotline.  Suffice it to say that it takes him a while to find his wife, and when he does it isn’t a happy reunion.  Meanwhile, he finds work smashing buildings to pieces.  He eventually makes friends with the other fellows in his work team, one of whom dies tragically, buried by falling bricks in a building undergoing destruction.  In one of the most tender moments in the film, he sticks several lit cigarettes into the “headstone” where his dead friend’s body is resting temporarily before they take it away in a riverboat.

In the second part of the film, a woman, also living in Shanxi, returns to find her husband, the leader of a demolition brigade, whom she hasn’t seen in two years.  Again, it takes a while for her to find her husband, and the reunion is not a pleasant one.  She is there to seek a divorce, since she claims he has been neglecting her and she has found somebody else.  As she heads off to Shanghai on the riverboat, there is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark film.

Jia Zhangke’s aesthetics make the film interesting and in some parts, beautiful.  Like documentary photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado, he finds beauty in the ugliness of a physically destroyed landscape and its tragic people.  There are many long, slow pans over the riverside landscape as towns are slowly torn apart and submerged by the rising waters of the dam.  The skies are often dark and brooding, threatening rain.  The people in the film look haggard and worn.  What a contrast to the beautiful people of Hollywood or Hong Kong films.

Yet there is a beauty to these people as well.  The bodies of the men, often shirtless or in their underwear, are slick with sweat, dark with sun, and taught with musculature, the product of years of hard physical labor.  The few females in the film have the simple beauty of small town women who are down on their luck, but trying hard to hold their lives together.  There is no Gong Li in this film, no Zhang Ziyi to brighten up the screen, but the lead female actress has a certain charm.

I have heard others speak of this film as a docudrama, and it certainly has a documentary quality to it.  The pacing is slow and deliberate.  There are long pans that space the characters’ performances with shots of the landscape.  There are many awkward silences between the characters as they perform their dialogue.  One wonders if this film could benefit from tighter editing.  The filmmaker is clearly indulging in a nostalgic feel for a place that will soon be underwater and gone forever.  Tighter cutting would have quickened the pace and moved the stories along.  This could easily be an 80-minute film instead of 1:08.  Then again, this strikes me as a typical Chinese film aesthetic, perhaps coming from deeper roots in Chinese visual culture.  The long spaces between action remind me of the vast negative spaces in Chinese landscape paintings, where the people appear so small against the background of mountains, clouds, and rivers.

Overall my students seemed to appreciate the film, though halfway through there were quite a few heads resting on tables.  I recommend that if you show this film to your students, you take a break halfway through and let people stretch.  Not that it’s long but the pacing has a somnolent effect on some people.  But they did enjoy the funny bits.  There are many small and subtle jabs at humor in this film, as the characters make their way awkwardly through a desolate physical and cultural landscape of destruction.  There are tender moments too, when people reach out to help each other along.  Yet there is also an underlying theme of violence, especially between the work gangs of men--no explicit violence, but plenty of bandages and bloodied heads.  Not a film for the squeamish.  But if you have the patience to sit through it, you will be rewarded.