China’s Three Gorges Dam will displace over 1.2 million people and put a massive swath of land underwater. But it won’t happen all at once. And in the in-between, there’s a strange kind of limbo for those who live there — between places not quite lost but soon-to-be and an uncertain future bearing down as sure as the water rises.
It’s this dramatic backdrop that Jia Zhang Ke chooses for his understated, gorgeously shot film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren). We watch the loosely intertwined stories of Sanming and Tao as they search for the past (a daughter, a husband) before the water washes away all trace. The metaphor works and it’s used to heartbreaking effect in a scene where Sanming arrives at the last known address for his family only to find it long submerged. You feel the quiet rumble of history in every frame — waterline marks written on buildings as if to say: next week, everything you remember will be underwater. But there are light moments, too. An elderly innkeeper entertainingly chastises a government worker for “rudely” marking his hotel “OK for Demolition” and a certain character’s fixation on Chow Yun Fat never gets old.
When I sailed through the Three Gorges last year, I saw lovely old villages being torn down brick by brick and shining modern cities built just across the river, the new cities perched in places that seem unreasonably high, but will soon be at river’s edge. The stunning scale of the project was driven home over and over. But what I missed was the human story: what this kind of change does to the people that live there, their families, and their dreams. Still Life is that story. It captures people at a singular moment in history in a place that, once lost, can never be regained. We see the lives of poor demolition workers and the camaraderie they develop in the ruins, we see the lives of the rich construction contractors and the impressive engineering feats of the New China, we see luminous celluloid jam packed with gorgeously lit conversation and culture. I felt like I was back in China, this time as an insider, a local.
But as close as you feel to the place and the characters, you slowly realize you aren’t just watching a beautifully composed film set against a dramatic backdrop but a historical document of a time that will not come again. After all, most of the locations shot in the film are now underwater. And the film quietly wonders if things aren’t better left that way.
We last wrote about China’s tomorrow in Future Found.