Sanxia haoren / The Good People of the Three Gorges
China / Hong Kong, 2006
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 May 2007
Source Warner Bros. DVD
Features: The 2007 Tribeca Film Festival
The original title of Jia Zhangke’s new film is The Good People of the Three Gorges, and although this has been translated for international art house and film festival audiences into the rather more deprovincialized and erudite-sounding Still Life, this new title nonetheless suggests a number of things about the film, about Jia’s work as a whole, and about international critics’ response to both. Unfortunately, above all else, the title broadcasts to the majority of Tribeca Film Festival-goers that this film will be arty and dull, that it will likely put forth a dour, kitchen-sink appraisal of a nascently globalized China, and that it will be the cinematic antithesis of Spider-Man 3.
Of course, it is this same promise of unstinting neo-realism that has so attracted art-house audiences and critics to Jia’s work, especially with his last film, The World, which similarly chronicled the lives of “good people” kept motionless within the machinery of proto-capitalist China. But for all the emphasis put on Jia’s bracing indictment of globalization and post-modernity in China, little attention is paid to the levity of his work, the wit and even euphoria that he affords his characters, which contrasts so sharply with the political cynicism of those critics writing about his work. Whatever grim notes Jia may strike about the state of his country, he never loses sight of the desires and interior lives of his characters.
This critical element is certainly there however, and Jia’s films clearly find much that is regrettable in contemporary China’s mad dash toward capitalism. Whereas his earlier films followed young characters in search of successful lives beyond their increasingly marginalized rural hometowns, Still Life lays its gaze on those left behind in China’s interior, inhabitants of a vanishing way of life that will be quite literally submerged in the tide of globalization. The film’s weightiest metaphor, the Three Gorges Project, suggests synecdochically a national project of gaining power at the expense of its individual citizens, upward of one million of whom were displaced, their villages simply erased. This project, much like World Park in Jia’s prior film, is a symbol of postmodernism writ large on China’s landscape, a world in which the imaginary becomes concrete and vice versa. The physical world is ephemeral and can simply vanish from beneath one’s feet; one’s interactions with others become entirely mediated by images from films, pop music, consumer commodities (liquor, cigarettes, toffee, and tea), and cell phones; and from the cozy perch of a hilltop nightclub, a local bureaucrat can bring an enormous bridge to fluorescent with only a quick call on his mobile.
Tourism looms large in the project for a new China, and so it is a fitting theme for Jia, a filmmaker as concerned with participating in the international consumer-culture of images as he is in the postmodern practice of dismantling it. In Still Life, we enter the world of the Three Gorges as tourists — first through the character of Han Sanming, a coalminer from Jia’s native Shanxi Province, searching for his long-lost wife and daughter; then through Shen Hong, a nurse from Beijing in search of her estranged husband, Guo Bin. Theirs are both attempts to recover and preserve the past — ironically analogized to the archaeological dig on which Guo Bin’s friend works — and serve as counterpoint to the large-scale demolition of the Three Gorges Project. Both are ways of preparing for a new future, one a good deal more violent than the other.
But Jia’s portrait of the region is far from the inert sociopolitical post-mortem its international title suggests, and while it employs the grand metaphor and epic unreality of the Three Gorges, its real emphasis is on the quiet interactions among those still hoping to find or hold onto something there before its vanishes in the name of hydroelectric power. Though he uses these metaphors to point up the unreality of the place, his postmodernism, if we must call it that, retains a lightness, a sense of play, that maintains its connection to the characters lived experience. To adjust Miriam Hansen’s phrase, his is a vernacular postmodernism insofar as it suggests the ways in which people negotiate this increasingly unreal, imagistic, globalized vision of the world. Rather than simply emphasize the way these conditions alienate people, Jia makes the point of connecting them with daily life. And so, when Han Sanming recognizes the native province of his new friends by its likeness on a particular Yuan banknote, or when his estranged wife offers him a conciliatory White Rabbit-brand toffee, the intent is not to bemoan the shallow commercialization of their intimacy, but merely to mark its encroachment into their way of life. Indeed, the wider economic project of capitalism in China has its very real, tragic, and fatal consequences, but the sense of the unreal that it engenders inevitably becomes part of the everyday, opening spaces for the expression of local desires, so that even those buildings threatened with demolition can voice their aspiration by igniting engines and taking flight.