28 April 2008

Still Life (Dir. Jia Zhang-Ke, 2006, China) - Cultural Bias and Chinese Cinema

Recognised by many critics and film festivals as one of the most important and best film-maker’s working in the world today, Jia Zhang-Ke’s work has somewhat alluded me until now. The North West in particular has always suffered from the cultural bias that exists within British society. Apart from a few notable independent art-house cinemas like The Showroom in Sheffield and The Corner house in Manchester, film culture has been pretty much absent from the North, and even today, anybody seriously interested in pursuing a career in film education, or catching up with the latest offerings from world cinema, will be disappointed with the lack of retrospectives on offer by the local art house cinema.

Currently, the NFT in London is showing a retrospective of the Chinese film maker, Jia Zhang-Ke, but the problem with such a tantalising range of films is that for somebody like myself who lives in Manchester, getting access to such a wealth of cinema would mean having to commute regularly just so that I can satisfy my endless demands for film. Such an argument of cultural bias seems absurd when considering how DVD and the Internet have considerably narrowed the classic problems of accessibility and availability that were associated with world cinema in the past. But if this true then are we clearly not suggesting that those who do not have the means to access films on the big screen in their rightful context should be satisfied with reducing their consumption of films to a flat screen and multi region DVD player?

It still seems strange that Manchester, one of the most populated cities in England, has only one dedicated art house cinema, that incidentally only houses 3 screens, and which are of a relatively poor standard compared to an independent like The Showroom in Sheffield. Much has been written about the cultural contempt with which the British Arts institutions treat cinema and film in the UK, and we as a society have never really believed in the cultural validity of film as an art form, ranking it much lower than painting, theatre, and literature. Then it comes of little surprise when a film like Still Life just simply seems to bypass all traditional means of exhibition, and is relegated to a niche audience on DVD. It makes little sense when mainstream critics and film journals including newspapers make a consensual argument about Jia Zhang-Ke’s contemporary significance as an auteur, when in fact the truth is that when a film like Transformers, directed by Michael Bay, is released on an unreasonable number of screens is not met with any sort of criticism regarding Hollywood’s policy of mass saturation and the virtual hegemony they hold over the UK multiplex. What this picture of UK film criticism reveals is the toothless nature and contradictory position of many UK film critics particularly those who claim to be working for certain illustrious and hugely influential film magazines. So is it audiences who are suggesting that Michael Bay holds more cultural relevance than a film maker like Jia Zhang-Ke?, or is it the fact that much of the mainstream film critics tend to side with the big Hollywood studio’s and distribution networks which have come to cynically monopolise our cinematic cultural tastes and consumption habits to such an extent that we rarely ever question the selective choice of Hollywood dominated films on offer to us today.

If Still Life or any other major world cinema release was afforded a worthy distribution and exhibition package then perhaps it might have a chance of finding an audience within the supposed narrow consumer tastes of the average cinemagoer, but of course, such an idealistic proposition would be met with much derision and anger from a Hollywood system that seeks endless opportunities for commercial exploitation of a film, and unfortunately, Still Life is not a product, but an illustration of ‘true’ cinema.

The Three Gorges Dam Project is one of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken by the Chinese government. Still Life looks at the real life social consequences of such a massive undertaking on the communities and individuals who have been forced to relocate elsewhere. Using a parallel narrative that features the story of two people returning to the town of Fengjie, looking for people they seemed to have drifted away from for reasons that are not explained, the film presents us with a carefully observed study of a reality that is unflinching in it’s depiction of humanity, with people reduced to mechanical figures frozen in time against a vacant landscape reminiscent of the films of Antonioni. Much of the film is shot through a series of long takes and a fixed vantage point that allows characters to enter and exit the frame with remarkable naturalness and ease that is in no way motivated by narrative casuality. In fact, the neo realist approach utilised by Zhang-Ke is evident in how he permits conversations and situations to come almost organically from out of the landscape itself, a technique favoured by De Sica and Rossellini in films such as Bicycle Thieves and Paisan. Though the film seems apolitical in how it avoids overtly condemning the Chinese government for policy decisions like the Dam Project, it seems more concerned with exploring how the inevitability of change as a historical force pulls and pushes at the lives of ordinary people, fracturing communities and smashing society so it is rendered in a constant state of paralysis.

Still Life is a film that finds parallels with the alienating landscapes of Antonioni and the understated moral vacuum of Bresson, suggesting that life in China will continually be in on the verge of a permanent motion of forward progression, change and metamorphosis that invites the horrors of loneliness and displacement.

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