Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Image and Imagination

It is quite surprising to know that “Still Life”, the fifth movie by Zhang-ke Jia, won the Golden Lion award in Venice Film Festival, NOT because it is mediocre or inelaborate, but because its rich details were woven by nuances and implications in the context of the fast changing China such that familiarity of cultural background is a requirement, instead of a supplement for the movie.

Jia once commented that Robert Altman was a master of portrait of group people. He especially admires his ability to magically present the meaning through seemingly loosely-intertwined casual dialogues. Still Life shows the influence of Altman. Although the story is linked by the changing fates of two marriages, one seeking reunion, the other divorce, the real main actors/actresses are those silent majority influenced by Three Gorges Dam project, those that were forced to leave where their ancestors had been living for centuries, and those that came to seek the opportunity to make their fortune. No particular script or scenario is absolutely inseparable in the movie; yet each provides a tiny note for the final elegy. The movie is a 108-minute-long snapshot, yet with effect of an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Besides the flooded sceneries and houses along the Yangtze River, gone are the family value, the trust between people and pastoral life style that were once cherished in those riverside towns. Shan ming and Shen Hong represented two different classes that have lost their voices in China: rural peasants and blue-collar workers in small towns, both lack of sophistication to drive them ahead of changing waves. While Shan ming still entertains himself with songs from 1980’s before the final reform took place to uproot west China, the more realistic Shen Hong doesn’t see the solution to her future even after she found the answer for her ending marriage. All she knows in the end is that the soaring cliffs and the connection to her to-be-ex husband will be soon carried away. Shan ming’s fate is equally cloudy as he decides to go back to the most dangerous job in the world: coal mining in China.

While the plotless feature in Robert Altman’s movies is mainly achieved through endless multi-sided dialogues, Jia painfully chose silence to carry equal-amount of delicate remarks. Just as the title of the movie indicated, most of the story is told through body-language and still images with particular settings. With the biggest budget ever, the director finally could pursue his own cinematographic style: the eerie combination of greenish blue and dark yellow makes up most of the movie. The former, seems natural in Fengjie where the dam is being built, projects a sense of aloofness and despair of inescapable loss. The yellow is mostly carried in the foreground as an elemental color for people. Thus they all look weary and over worn. There is certainly a visual conflict between the two colors and one soon begins to sense that those people are meant to leave such environment even though the town could have been saved.

In an interview, Jia said he intentionally chose the same opening day as Yimou Zhang’s blockbuster movie: Curse of the Golden Flower. It is a gesture of protesting the decaying market which has been indulged by the eyeball-striking, fantasy-filled, Kong-fu-oriented entertainment. Jia’s low-budget movies, with its mundane topic, smaller-than-life plot, amateur acting and austere setting, speak the rusting consciousness of Chinese intellect. For those lucky Chinese that do watch the movie in the end, the feeling of admiration could be equally given to the director and those jury in Venice who gave the top award to the name of the movie.


I am confident to say Pan’s Labyrinth is the best I’ve ever seen in 2007. (You must be kidding!) Actually, considering it was released in Dec 29, 2006, I should rephrase and say that it was the best movie I saw in 2006, period. Compared with others such as Departed, Little Miss Sunshine and Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth wins easily by its originality, intriguing story-telling and great acting.

The director, Del Toro simply told a captivating story by balancing the dark violent real life with otherworldly mysterious fantasy. The cruelty and innocence clash while compliment each other so that each is projected more extreme and at the same time more convincing. What prevails in both worlds is the somber atmosphere: no one, even without the snapshot of final ending at the beginning, would expect a happy end. But what a beautiful way to carry that harrowing sensibility!

I wish the movie a good luck for the coming Oscar!

1 comment:

leazhw said...

Pan's Labyrinth disappointed me because I went to it with high expectation. Those violent scenes, torturing and abusing are really not necessary. The real part and fantasies are too well balanced, so weaken each other. I still give it a 7 out of 10. I hope Children of Men would be better, but didn't get time to it. Many years ago, Little Princess (1995) is one of my favorite.