The Distancing Effect in Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’
Jia Zhangke’s film ‘Still Life’ tells the story of a man in search of his daughter in the valley of the Three Gorges in China. The man has not seen his daughter for sixteen years whereas the old address of his estranged wife is the only clue to his family’s whereabouts. Crucially, the film was made in 2006, the same year that the Three Gorges Dam was completed and the water levels of the Yangtze began to rise. The man quickly discovers that his estranged wife’s house is already completely submerged by water. Throughout the film, the monumentality of the task of locating his family is signified by long and sweeping shots, aesthetically reminiscent of Romanticist paintings, with the man in the foreground and his gaze transfixed by the ever-changing landscape in the background.
The impending force of the Yangtze is emphasised in a number of shots that indicate where the water levels of the river are expected to be in the future. Streets, buildings, homes, an entire city in short, is expected to give way to the Yangtze at 156.5 meters above sea level. As the Chinese character on one building indicates, anything in the way of this mega-project is labelled ‘demolish’ (拆, chāi). It is important to note that such demolitions, often forced on tenants with little or no compensation, are one of the major sources of social instability in China. Where will the people that inhabit these buildings go? What will they do? Metaphorically speaking, what will the future of China look like. The blown out highlights and lack of visual details in a number of poignant scenes in the movie indicate that the man’s future, China’s future, is diffused, ambigious, literally not clear.