- Jia Zhangke's World and China's Great Transformation: A Revised Version of a Speech Given at "The Still Life Symposium" at Fenyang High School
Putting Fiction into Documentary Realism
A good director uses his or her own filmic language to create a personal world. Here I refer not to stylistic features but rather to the use of distinctive language, form, and characters. There are a few directors with a distinct filmic language whose conception of history is entirely conventional; their films are visual spectaculars but lack their own world. Jia Zhangke's films, on the other hand, are set in their own world. He puts forth his own understanding of significant changes within this world and does not just duplicate conventions that are seen as profound. Jia Zhangke is extremely sensitive, always finding his own methods of reconstructing historical recollections, a characteristic that is evident in films from Pickpocket to The World. But his films do have differences: Pickpocket uses a realist style to reveal the zeitgeist [End Page 217] of a particular era, in the perceptions of a generation; to some extent it has an autobiographical feel. The World shows change on an even bigger scale; although scenes are arranged in a conventional manner, they unfold in a fictional world. Still Life centers on one place and tells the story of two people searching for loved ones. However, by making a connection between the Three Gorges area and Shanxi mines, the film not only paints a picture of far-reaching social changes; it places the fictional within a documentary narrative. Still Life was filmed together with Jia Zhangke's documentary Dong. Both touch on a world unfamiliar to Jia Zhangke, and in scope and depth they surpass his previous films.
It is evident that during the course of filming, Jia Zhangke spent considerable effort studying Chinese society. The most obvious example is his tackling of the Three Gorges Dam and the problem of internal migration. China is not only working on the Three Gorges project; it is undergoing nationwide dam and reservoir construction on a scale rarely seen. In the past few years, I have been involved in some investigative reports, not through film or TV, but through other means, and because of this I have some experience that allows me to gauge the accuracy of his portrayal.
The migration problem of the past several decades has involved tens of millions of people, and the government admits that quality of life has declined for the majority of those who were uprooted. The problem of migrant life is not just one of economic decline; it involves the disappearance of entire communities, changes in interpersonal relationships, and a complete lifestyle transformation. All of these issues are accurately portrayed in the film.
Another clear example of contemporary social issues is the endless hardship of the Shanxi mines: we receive news reports on the number of fatalities, but we never see the problem through a miner's eyes. Prior to Still Life there was Li Yang's Blind Shaft, which depicted the lives of miners and laborers. It flopped at the box office but was one of very few contemporary works to elicit a strong emotional response from viewers. Through the character portrayed by Han Sanming, Still Life connects Shanxi miners with the migration project at Three Gorges and places both within the greater historical changes of our time. The death of the character Mark links the film's world with the real-life example of the Yunyang machine factory. I'm [End Page 218] not sure if Jia Zhangke investigated the process of the Yunyang factory conversion, but the scene of Mark's death made me think immediately of the detailed report in Nan Feng Chuan magazine of that factory.
Still Life opens with an aria from the Sichuan opera The Story of Lin Chong, followed later by Mark's phone playing the music from The Bund. A hotel owner, after learning his hotel will soon be demolished, says angrily, "I know some people!" These elements demonstrate that the "Mafia" has already become a part of daily life. Wang Hongwei leads Shen Hong...