Han Sanming and Shen Hong’s search for their loved ones in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is very much reminiscent of the protagonist’s search for his erstwhile wife Esther in Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir. Though the plot focuses on each person’s individual search and subsequent discovery of their missing loved ones in Fengjie, I found the film transforming into a documentary of China’s urbanization, just like Jia’s The World.
Still Life follows Han Sanming and Shen Hong, a married man with a daughter, and a married woman, who (separately) follow their respective spouses to Fengjie. The spectator’s sense of anticipation is watered down by the mise-en-scene of the unceremonious revelation to Han Sanming of his wife and daughter’s whereabouts. Perhaps Missy Ma’s brother, who does the honours, is attempting to signal to Sanming that he needs to remain patient for their arrival back into the city from Yichuang? Hong faces a slightly greater challenge in her husband’s friend Wang Dongming, who while attempting to help her, enforces the patriarchal status quo – that men are not to be questioned – by refusing to tell her of her husband’s affair.
Their respective spouses exemplify the theme of hypocrisy in the film. Guo Bin is revealed to have begun an affair in Fengjie. Missy Ma’s great escape seems to have been along those lines as well, possibly – as her only form of explanation is “I was young. What did I know?” – to quell a disquiet in her marriage, or to have an affair. Ironically, her escape only led to her and her daughter’s enslavement, as her daughter works as an indentured servant to pay off a debt. Sanming also has to promise to cough up a large sum to take Missy with him, indicating that she too, met a similar fate. Also ironically, the mise-en-scene of Shen Hong walking away from Guo Bin indicates her having ditched the marriage she had been searching for, while Bin attempts to save it while having an affair.
Yet perhaps, their individual journeys were ones of closure. Hong exemplifies this theme by actually meeting Guo despite already knowing of his affair. If he rarely contacted her to begin with, simply ignoring his occasional phone call would’ve been enough? How did it take Sanming sixteen years to muster up the energy to search for his missing wife and daughter? Perhaps his journey was motivated moreso by closure than by a genuine desire to reunite with his wife and daughter.
Loss, however, remains the primary theme to which every character’s journey is entwined, in some shape or form. Their loss of their relatives, marriages, and even their lives is comparable to the loss that Fengjie faces as it transforms into land for the Three Gorges Dam. Hong and Missy Ma exemplify the sense of agency that women both possess and lack in the film. The “male gaze” both virtually and physically imprisons women, as best seen through the plight of Sanming’s daughter. Modern day slavery exists, as do runaway husbands, corruption, and patriarchal values in the status quo of China in 2006. That they are maybe merely seen as just a consequence of the economic growth in China is perhaps, a major travesty. Still Life is recommended.