Film Review : Still Life (2006)

IMDB Score – 7.3

Directed By – Zhangke Jia
Starring – Tao Zhao, Zhou Lan, Sanming Han, Lizhen Ma, and Hongwei Wang

Citizens return to a flooded town to salvage what they can and say good-bye to things they lost.

It’s funny how my Netflix queues tend to come together at weird points. Two films directed by Zhangke Jia managed to find their way into future viewing by me and I didn’t even plan the damn thing. “Still Life” came in the mail yesterday and I have “A Touch of Sin” lined up for my next viewing in my Instant Queue. I’ve never seen any of his films before and did not plan this is the slightest. Weird.

Anyway, obviously I sat down to watch Still Life” first, as the mail service is longer and more expensive. Gotta get those discs out of here quick so that my monthly bill is worth it. The film ended up being a pretty interesting watch, albeit very slow, which is not a negative. The film centers around two people who never meet during the duration of the film, as they try to seek out their spouses whom they haven’t seen for years. The story told in the film is a loose one. Neither story arch comes into full focus and only briefly concludes by the end of the film. However, this is a unique film. Zhangke Jia managed to tell and show a lot more than what was most likely written down in the script. The film takes place in the area near the Three Gorges Dam that is to be demolished before eventually being flooded by the dam. Some parts have already been flooded and the rest is being taken care of as the Dam project begins to progress. We are literally seeing people having to move out of areas where they spent the majority of their lives, and they can’t take everything. They have to choose. What is important? What is to stay behind. It is this theme where the emotion comes from in the form of our two protagonists quests to find their spouses. When they find them, will they try to salvage what is left? Will they let them go to nature? Powerful stuff.

The film is gorgeous by the way. In an almost Michael Haneke style, Zhangke Jia let the camera sit a lot and just take in the silence and body language of what was being shown. There were many shots of characters standing before a lush and open landscape that was both beautiful and frightening due to its humongous scale. Images of boats traveling through huge gorges painted most of the scenes and still camera shots of town inhabitants smoking who knows what as they take a break from their labor fill in the cracks. I love this kind of film making. By leaving the camera still on a subject, and letting the scene play out, I get a more realistic feel and can enter the world easier. It also lets the powerful moments register with more weight when you’re not having a rising maelstrom of lights and music to scream to the viewer that what they are witnessing is important. Don’t pander to me film. Let me do the work occasionally.

“Still Life” is a very unique but ultimately rewarding film with subtle imagery galore and packed with symbolism. It may not be a re watchable film, but the photography and heavy message of letting go gave me a unique experience and a good reintroduction to Chinese cinema. I’ll be watching Zhangke Jia’s most recent film “A Touch of Sin” next.


Suggested Viewing – Still Walking, Poetry, Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Documentary Review : Stories We Tell (2013)

IMDB Score – 7.7
Rotten Tomato Score – 95%

Directed By – Sarah Polley

A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers.

I’ve always been a fan of Sarah Polley. I really enjoyed her work as a director and writer for Away From Her which got her a nomination from the Academy Awards and her acting has always been enjoyable. Stories We Tell is a documentary about Sarah Polley…sort of. Her mother Diane Polley who died before her time of cancer is the focal point of Sarah’s inquiries to her family, all of which is documented by Sarah herself. What starts to develop is a story which then becomes the main theme of the film in which the origin of how Sarah entered this world comes into question. I’ll leave it at that. It’s a wonderful thing to watch unfold and I don’t want to spoil it.

This film hit me pretty hard. I feel comfortable saying that I am currently in therapy for some issues that involve my family. While that is as far as I’m willing to disclose, I can say that the stories that are told from each family member are ones that I constantly find myself telling to my doctor. I mean that in a way that we all tell people stories of our family. Our family is what we have known since our earliest memories. Until we eventually move out on our own, our families are what we wake up to and fall asleep with. This film was one of the most intimate things I’ve ever watched because The Polley family was talking about Diane Polley with such emotion and love that I felt like I was a close friend giving somebody comfort. It was an emotional ride told with precision and heart from Sarah. It also happened to be a gripping and captivating story with twists and turns that go on up until a shocking reveal in the films closing credits. It was as I was in the rooms with these people as they laughed and cried as they recalled their lives growing up with their mother. It was a connecting experience.

The film isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s made of talking heads and reenactments using super 8 footage but it really hit home for me. We’re going to be telling stories of our lives with our families for years to come. Some will be good and some will be bad but they are the stories we know best and the ones that mean the most in the end.