Images from Still Life

The husband and wife reunite after sixteen years of being apart.

The one-minute long take has them dawdling mostly silently in the gutted building.

Images from Pickpocket

Four quick shots after the opening title of Pickpocket narrate a homecoming beginning with the lighting of a match.

The characters on the matchbook indicate Shanxi Province, Jia Zhangke’s home province.

The identity of the smoker is revealed. He is the anti-hero of the film (Xiao Wu).

He is waiting for a bus to go back to his hometown.

Xiao Wu rides on the back of the bicycle, which forms the focus of the tracking shot.


Platform's last shot shows two of the characters stuck in a state of ennui as loud dissonance, mimicking the whistle on the tea pot, jars the eventless scene.

Images from Unknown Pleasures

The pathetic demise of the two main characters in Unknown Pleasures is influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Binbin straps a fake bomb to himself, but the bank robbery does not work.

Binbin is immediately arrested.

Xiao Ji escapes on his motorcycle, but he breaks down on the road.

Narrating changes in topography: Still Life and the cinema of
Jia Zhangke

by Eric Dalle

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which reached various levels of completion during the first decade of the 21st century, has become an intensely controversial issue among environmentalists, the government of the People’s Republic of China, and the millions of residents who have been displaced due to flooding caused by the dam’s construction.[1] [open notes in new window] Set upon the backdrop of Three Gorges Dam, Jia Zhangke’s 2006 film Still Life follows the interpersonal intricacies of two couples from opposite sides of the economic divide of an industrializing China. The characters’ lives play out in relation to the construction and demolition associated with the damming project. Furthermore, the film explores how the impending flood highlights the complexities of the socio-economic while contemplating the human limits of comprehending massive changes in topography.

A building in the distance begins to fall.The shot ends with the couple standing ... ... and appearing larger in stature than the surrounding demolition in the background.

One prominent long take occurs after Han Sanming and Missy, two of the main characters from an initial narrative thread, reunite after sixteen years of being apart. The estranged pair dawdles in a gutted building. The man and woman are placed in the right–hand side of the frame of this long shot: she standing to his left, and he squatting. To the left of this pair, a wide hole made by the demolition process exposes the backdrop of the city. Missy gives Sanming a piece of candy, and she squats facing him—he continuously smoking a cigarette. The only diagetic sounds within this minute-long shot are distant car horns and even more distant sounds of mallets striking concrete buildings. Suddenly within the panorama of the cityscape, of which the viewer has access through the gap in the wall in the background, one of the larger buildings falls—hiccupping ash and rubble along its rumbling descent. The two characters stand and turn in the direction of the massive movement and accompanying noise that invades the city view. Sanming gently places his hands on Missy’s arms from behind.

When taken in context of the overall plot of the film, this particular shot narrates an implosion of disparate forces in terms of labor, migration, human trafficking, and environmental destruction that is exposed by the vanishing topography as a result of the Three Gorges Dam. Missy’s original home has now been submerged by the rising waters. It is also revealed in the film that she is a victim of human trafficking because Sanming had originally purchased her from that area. The nostalgic Sanming, though, hopes to return to Shanxi with his estranged wife and continue working in the dangerous coal mines to pay off the debt to the man that purchased Missy from her brother. The predicament of the two characters projects an endemic situation of the economics of the locale—they are physically relocated by the commerce environmentally affecting the area of Fengjie and the economics of an industrializing China.

Still Life encapsulates the environmental side of Jia Zhangke’s larger filmic project. Since the beginning of his career, Jia’s works have sought to expose the evolution of China in relation to rapid economic development, the aesthetic implications of globalization, and the human toll of environmental degradation. Jia’s preoccupation with change allows for the vestiges of human resolve to survive among the shifting socio-economics of contemporary society, all wrought by larger interrelated forces, that are state-sponsored, global, and imposed through economic structures. Ultimately, Jia Zhangke’s filmic project sets to critique the very notion of representing the changes in topography by pushing the limits of narrative and documentary film in turn exposing the conceptual holes in comprehending vast ecological change.

This article offers a reading of Jia Zhangke’s films in relation to how his career is invested in narrating changing topography. Jia, as director, embodies many of the influences he describes. His hometown becomes his first major thematic subject, and he is able to utilize the advancement and availability of digital technologies to craft and promote his work. An introduction to Jia’s early films sets the foundation for a reading of his 2006 work Still Life which will be approached from three perspectives: the heterogeneity of environmental impact understood through the migrant experience, the way in which Jia understands nostalgia as a crisis in signification, and the manner in which the film de-centers the notion of home and homelessness. Finally, the conclusion will demonstrate how Jia’s Still Life, when read against his companion documentary Dong, implodes the boundaries of documentary and narrative. Jia Zhangke’s work exposes the limits of logic in comprehending changes in landscape and engages in the act of narrating topography.  

Hometown, topography, and technology

Jia Zhangke is a member of the generation of young Chinese that experienced first-hand the drastic social and economic transformations of Mainland China. His craft similarly has worked with and negotiated varying forces, such as state censorship and international/domestic recognition. Jia was born in Fenyang, in Shanxi province in 1970, and his place of birth will remain an important aspect in the majority of his films. In various interviews, Jia has said that he believes the notion of a home is of primary importance of an individual’s emotional and rational understanding of the world. Though he admits that there really is not much in Fenyang, he must always come back (Teo 4). 

The first three full-length independent films of Jia Zhangke are generally referred to as The Hometown Trilogy.[2] His first major full length film Pickpocket (or Xiao Wu, 1997) was a project that evolved upon site and became the seminal thematic preoccupation for all his subsequent film.[3] The original intent of the film was a short intended to be about thirty minutes. Upon arriving in his hometown of Fenyang, however, Jia was struck by the changes that had taken place in such a short time as he was studying film in Beijing. The project immediately became a filmic attempt to capture the rapidly changing topography.

The first four shots following the opening credits and title immediately establish the location of the film and the homecoming of the protagonist. The first shot is a close-up of a hand as it strikes a match. A second shot, also a close-up, shows the match as it lights a cigarette in a man’s mouth. The matchbox contains the two Chinese characters “Shan Xi” indicating that the action is taking place in Jia’s home province. A following long shot shows that the man lighting the cigarette is standing on the side of the road. This is the main character, Xiao Wu, and it is revealed in the fourth shot, a counter shot from behind his head, that he is waiting for a bus. Immediately within the first twenty seconds after the opening title, Jia establishes the setting and sets in motion the homecoming of the main character. From here, Xiao Wu will experience the difficulties of returning home, refracting Jia’s malaise as he himself returned to Fenyang after studying in Beijing for several years. 

Jia Zhangke shot Pickpocket in 16mm in just twenty-one days and used a mix of hand-held camera work, long takes, and tracking shots that emphasize the decaying dimensions of the local architecture (often carrying the character chai indicating impending demolition).[4] Sound work also stresses the dominance of the hectic atmospheric noise of the cityscape. A one minute tracking shot follows Xiao Wu riding on the back of a bicycle. Though the bicycle with the two men form the focal point of the shot, they pass along a panorama of crumbling walls, businesses, people, parked bicycles, signs, and general urban items which taken as a whole form the real emphasis of the shot. As the two characters converse, their dialogue competes with the sound of a public service announcement through a loud speaker. The city’s sights and sounds outweigh the importance of the two men on the bicycle.

The background captures banal glimpses of the architecture of village life. The background passing by is more important than the center focus of the tracking shot.
Alone and naked in a bathhouse, Xiao Wu sings part of the duet he refused to sing earlier. The camera begins to pan upwards.
It captures the empty space above the main character. The last seconds of the shot show a window and the steam from the bathhouse.

In another scene, Jia focuses attention on interior architecture in concert with his main character. Earlier in the film, Xiao Wu ventures into a karaoke bar after being rejected by his hometown friend. At the bar he meets an entertainer named Mei Mei. He is awkward in front of her and refuses to sing a karaoke duet, explaining that he is not capable of singing. Later a two and a half minute long take narrates shows Xiao Wu naked and alone in a bathhouse. He begins singing the male part of the duet that he was incapable of singing earlier. As he begins singing, the camera slowly pans upward. The last thirty seconds of the shot focus on the ceiling, walls, of the bathhouse which echo with the voice of Xiao Wu.

Jia’s second film Platform (Zhantai 2000) is more ambitious than Pickpocket, expanding his preoccupation with changes in his hometown Fenyang from the late 1970s to the 1990s. The film charts the progress of this era from the perspective of the interconnected lives of four main characters who are members of a song and dance troupe. They begin by performing propaganda pieces hailing Chairman Mao Zedong, and over the course of the 80s the group mutates into a private group known as the Shenzhen All-stars Rock and Break-dance Electronic Band. Their lives continue alongside socio-political and economic changes experienced in their hometown: for example, the introduction of the one-child policy and electrification of the city. The film ends by asking the question of what these changes actually bring on a personal, cultural, or even psychological level. The final scene, if answering this question, does not champion a positive response.

The last shot is a two-minute long take of the home of two of the characters who are now married and have a child. The wife boils water on a stove while holding the baby and pacing back and forth. The husband is slumped on a chair, apparently in a state of ennui, with a lit cigarette dangling out of his hand. A cacophony of diagetic sound of the stove, the mother speaking to the baby, a radio, and unseen children playing in a courtyard outside is slowly challenged by the crescendo of an extra-diagetic and harsh dissonance. This dissonance mixed with diagetic sound lingers past the black out of the shot and remains for another ten seconds until it fades out. The ending of Platform focuses on disillusionment, particularly when comparing the representation of the lives of youth in the era immediately following reform to their lives as adults.  

Jia Zhangke, like the characters in his works, has been affected by social and technological advancements, and he is able to utilize these changes in relation to production and distribution of his films. He attributes much of the success and innovation of the new generation of independent directors to the digital revolution. In an article in Cahiers du cinéma, Jia pinpoints three areas in which digital technology has improved the technique and status of younger Chinese directors as well as the sophistication of Chinese film viewers:

  • Digital cameras have allowed young directors to shoot in areas with greater ease and approach subjects with fewer obstacles to filming.
  • The diffusion of DVDs throughout markets in China (and in particular through non-legitimate routes) has allowed a greater circulation of works from young directors as well as international titles allowing Chinese audiences to develop a more profound taste in cinema.
  • The internet has allowed public forums for discussions of film among young Chinese cinephiles.

These three aspects of cinematic evolution of the past decade have, according to Jia, allowed Mainland independent film makers to grow in number (“Trois révolutions” 21-23). Though Jia acknowledges the limitations of digital shooting, he believes that it has given directors more liberty to film as well as explore aesthetic routes.[5]

Jia Zhangke’s third film of the “Hometown Trilogy” titled Unknown Pleasures (Ren Xiao Yao 2002) was shot completely in digital and recounts the adventures of two friends Binbin and Xiao Ji and their meandering purposeless lives among the streets of a town called Datong. Both men are young products of Deng’s Open Door period and did not experience the Maoist past. Neither of them has a job, and both men come from single-parent homes. The film is punctuated by larger geo-political events such as the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter plane and American spy plane off the coast of Hainan in 2001. In the end, both of the dreams of the two men fail, and influenced by the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they decide to hold up a bank with a fake bomb. The plan, which has Binbin enter a bank and Xiao Ji on his motorcycle, goes immediately awry. Binbin is taken into custody, and Xiao Ji takes off on his motorcycle which then breaks down on the highway.    

Jia Zhangke is invested in the nostalgia, ambivalence, and transitional state of China in the 1980s, and his works are also conscious of the globalizing forces at play at the turn of the millennium. His career straddles the divide between the local and the global, so he inhabits a prime position permitting him to explore how global influences affect local lives. His fourth full-length film The World (2004) elucidates the ironies of globalization. The World takes place in an ‘Epcot-esque’ world amusement park located in Beijing. Just as his earlier films concentrate on landscape and architecture, the plot of The World often appears subordinate to much of the mise-en-scène. The park houses miniature models of iconic world structures: the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. The protagonist Tao is a dancer, and her boyfriend Taisheng is one of the security guards working in the park. He is from Shanxi province like many other migrant workers at the park. But migrant work also occurs on a global scale. For example, a Russian dancer named Anna arrives to work in the park, and she and Tao become friends. She wants to quit her job to see her sister but must become a prostitute in order to do this. Thus this simulacrum of the world contains within it the realities of the globalizing world.

The World takes place in a theme park ... ... which creates an allegorical space ...
... for referring to globalization and its realities.  

In the transition from the “Hometown Trilogy” to The World, the avenue of Jia’s film-making has also undergone a pertinent permutation. Like many directors that fall under the umbrella term “sixth generation” he shot without the approval of the state-owned studio system but then showed his films at international festivals. For production of The World, Jia did approach the Film Bureau. When asked why he decided upon this change, Jia replies,

“I didn’t change; the environment for Chinese filmmakers changed. Because, starting last year [2003], a group of us young directors communicated with the Film Bureau quite a bit; we were fighting for a freer, more relaxed filmmaking environment. Then this year they’ve announced a lot of new policies.” (Jaffee “Interview”) 

Jia continues to cite some of the new policies, mostly a slackening of censor oversight, which has encouraged young filmmakers. Originally film was subject to censoring by the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television. Currently there are regional offices to seek approval (Jaffee “interview”). The irony in Jia’s transition from independent to state approved film-maker is the inversely proportional thematic interest from hometown to the world—i.e. to explore his hometown, he avoided state permission, and to explore the world, he finally turned to the Film Bureau for production.

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