Arguably - no, make that inarguably - one of the most important filmmakers of modern world cinema - on par with Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien - Chinese Sixth Generation auteur Jia Zhangke, with his fifth feature, has created a film of both unique beauty and quiet despair. The aptly titled Still Life is a paean to a lost past that can never be found again. Jia tells us, for better or for worse, here we are now, today, in a world so changed by modernization that one may hardly even recognize its face in the mirror. The dual story of one man's journey back home to find the wife and daughter who left him sixteen years prior and a young woman's quest to find the husband who has abandoned her for his job far away from home, Still Life meanders along as if it were a painting - to state the obvious reference, a still life if you will - slowly, ever so slowly coming to life before our very eyes. With a pace equal that of Chinese history - slowly yet ever forward - Jia's song of sorrow to a forgotten past is at once a love song to his ancient homeland and a provocative remonstration of his nation's present.
Interspersed with moments of frivolity that have always bespeckled the cinema of Jia, Still Life, as still as it may be, is constantly alive with an ethereal sense of otherness - a secret life of its own. As if a cinematic black forest full of fairies and goblins and spirits were just beneath the surface of Jia's living breathing film, ready at any time to invade the reality of Jia's characters. A magic realm hidden just inside the naturalistic mechanisms of Jia's reality as it were. His shy camera brooding over his characters, watching there every subtle move with the quiet eye of a voyeur. Where other filmmakers may show off their prestigious cinematic talents for all to see and go "ooh" and "aah" over (which in no certain terms is a slight, for that group would include some of the greats such as Welles, Godard and Scorsese) Jia's cinema is more down-to-Earth (otherwordly undercurrent or not) and though just as "ooh"-y and "aah"-y as his more boisterous brethren, more matter-of-factly rich in subtle texture. It is in this deceptively simplistic mise-en-scene manner in which Jia finds his true cinematic compatriots - Ozu, Bresson, the aforementioned Hou-Hsiao-hsien and even the Italian Neo-Realists.
From his youth-addled debut feature Xiou Wu, an updating of Bresson's Pickpocket of all things, through the playful epic-inspired Platform, the dispassionate Unknown Pleasures and the Big Brother-esque snarkiness of The World, to the quiet, almost post-modern majesty of Still Life, Jia has grown, in just five feature films, from adoring cinematic genuflector to voice of his disallusioned generation to austere master. Now, what comes next? [02/01/08]