“That’s how it is here,” explains a young girl in Jia Zhang-ke’s fifth feature, Still Life. She’s referring to the overcast sky above her Yangtze River village, but when she says “here” she might as well be talking about all of China, or for that matter The World — the title, not coincidentally, of Jia’s 2004 masterpiece, set in a kitschy Beijing theme park that serves as the ultimate metaphor for our global dystopia.
A companion piece to Useless — Jia’s documentary about human obsolescence that played at the New York Film Festival last September — Still Life is another dirge for those whom the free market leaves behind. Incorporating verité destruction footage, the movie focuses on the actual riverbank communities — some of which are 2,000 years old — razed by the Chinese government to make way for the vaunted Three Gorges Dam project (scheduled for completion next year).
The future has arrived in the form of a state-of-the-art suspension bridge and a power plant that looks as if it’s owned by Montgomery Burns, but all the residents of Fengjie can see is rubble. Some condemned buildings are ominously painted with “Phase 3” water lines; others are simply dynamited by the demolition crews that employ the soon-to-be-refugee locals. In one scene—a quotation of Fight Club’s close — two lovebirds watch a tower crumble.
Jia perennials Tao Zhao and Sanming Han play a nurse and a coalminer, respectively, who each arrive in Fengjie searching for a spouse who has abandoned them. Spirits in a newly material China, they are also sleuths whose investigations draw them ineluctably into the past. History, Jia implies, does not need saving. It has a life of its own.