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51st San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
8:45 p.m. Still Life
Jia Zhang-ke (Hong Kong/China, 2006)

(San xia hao ren). A major new work from Jia Zhang-ke, a leading figure of what is known as the Sixth Generation of filmmakers in the People’s Republic of China, Still Life won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the sixty-third Venice Film Festival. Massive change has come to the town of Fengjie. Because of the construction of the immense Three Gorges Dam project, countless families who have lived there for generations are being displaced. The film’s beautiful opening scene of villagers slowly drifting down the Yangtze River sets the tone for all that follows. It is immediately clear that the ideas of the film will be told through images rather than dialogue. Han Sanming, a miner, travels to Fengjie to find his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in almost two decades. Somehow he finds her and they debate whether to remarry. In a parallel story, a young nurse is looking for her husband, who has disappeared for two years. Much of Still Life is devoted to following these lost souls as they wind their way through the ruined streets and buildings. As much a documentary as a dramatic narrative, the film is intensely compassionate and laced with moments of quiet surrealism. Jia is the most successful chronicler of change and discontent in contemporary China. He bears witness to the country’s often vicious shift from state-controlled communism to capitalism (and its inevitable rip-offs). One of the world’s great contemporary filmmakers, he chronicles the lives of people who are caught between two poles, just like the tightrope walker glimpsed in the film’s final scene.

—Joel Shepard

• Written by Jia. Photographed by Yu Likwai. With Han Sanming, Zhao Tao, Li Zhu Bing, Wang Hongwei. (108 mins)