Things don't just fall apart in Jia Zhang-ke's alluring wasteland drama "Still Life." They're pulverized. That doesn't seem like much of a distinction, but it's the difference between passive decay and willful destruction.
Fengjie County, which lies along the Yangtze River in China, is flood-prone. To stem the deluges, the region has made way for the Three Gorges Dam, an epic, troublesome, nearly biblical undertaking that began in the mid-1990s and won't be done anytime soon. The Big Dig seems like an afternoon gardening project by comparison.
All over the county, buildings have been demolished into concrete mountains and the million or so people who lived in them are being gradually relocated to a higher altitude. "Still Life," which won the top prize at 2006's Venice Film Festival, climbs along the debris, sails along the river, and, in a series of barren rooms, carves out a story. The drama at its center is an elemental search: man looks for woman. Jia's narrative approach prizes ambiguity, but it bears out. What seems uncertain attains solidity and then dramatic form, like metal filaments gathering around an unexpected magnetized surface until some arresting image takes shape.
The man, Sanming (Han Sanming) is a miner, who has come to Fengjie in an ill-fitting tank top and pants that rise to his abdomen. He's looking for his very estranged wife and daughter. It's been 16 years, and everything is upside down. His old street is underwater. His two women are gone. While he waits for news of them, he joins his brother-in-law's demolition crew and swings a hammer at the stony ruins that haven't already been blown to rubble and dust.
Finding anything against such a smashed up backdrop seems wishful at best. Substance plays an amazing role in this film: All that's actually concrete in this film is concrete itself. The true state of everything else is anybody's guess. At the halfway point, the movie switches perspectives - a woman, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) searches for a man - and we move to a massive oxidized factory, whose ex-employees whack at the structure's rusting metal. They're jobless since the owner sold the business, and they're furious.
The new film loses something at this point - its deceptive effortlessness, its discreet comedy, its intriguing form, the terrific human images. Yet "Still Life" mines sorrow from physical ugliness and captures in all this sad collapse and bizarre displacement an inner beauty only a radiologist could intuit. The film isn't as grand or triumphantly ironic as "Platform," "Unknown Pleasures," or "The World," Jia's previous movies. The winking globalist eye of "The World" focuses on local headaches instead. And despite the sight of an ornate-looking building that rockets up, up, and away from Fengjie, surrealism in "Still Life" clings to dirty earth. In its reduced scale the movie is much closer to Jia's recent, observational documentaries, "Dong" and "Useless."
"Still Life" continues Jia's exploration of the symbiosis between people and their places - how one affects the other, and how both affect an audience. This is an ideal opportunity to see one of the cinema's budding masters in fine form. It's also a terribly limited opportunity. "Still Life" is scheduled to leave the Museum of Fine Arts on March 16.