Still Life

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Honolulu International Film Festival 

New Yorker Films

HONOLULU -- The impact of China's massive Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project takes on personal proportions in "Still Life," writer-director Jia Zhang-ke's feature companion film to his docu "Dong," which shares some of the same themes and settings. It recently screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

"Still Life" exhibits the characteristic blend of documentary and narrative conventions that has earned Jia international acclaim, though it lacks the sting of incisive social commentary and stylistic variation that made "Unknown Pleasures" and "Platform" refreshingly stronger features. With its measured pacing and understated performances, the film is unlikely to draw much attention beyond the director's dedicated art house fans when it gets a theatrical release via New Yorker Films in January.

Morose, middle-aged coal miner Sanming (Han Sanming) arrives in the Yangtze River town of Fengjie searching for his ex-wife, who left him 16 years earlier, and the teenage daughter he has never known. The town is gradually being dismantled in preparation for imminent inundation as the river rises behind the dam. Sanming quickly learns that her last known address already is submerged below the water. Taking on work with a group of labors demolishing Fengjie's urban landscape, Sanming broadens his desultory search, gradually discovering more details surrounding his former spouse's disappearance.

Meanwhile, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), another visitor to Fengjie, searches for her philandering businessman husband, but it seems that after two years of separation, he may not want to be found. Shen's determination to seek a divorce, however, leads her to a mutual friend who might be able to reveal her wayward spouse's whereabouts.

Although these two story lines never intersect, Jia keeps them linked with the Fengjie setting, as the two characters wander the expanding ruins of the city in search of their missing partners. The film's absorbing HD cinematography and some striking shots of Fengjie's crumbling cityscape often yield imagery of tactile verisimilitude, emphasized by Jia's typically minimalist camerawork.

Favoring a melancholy tone of alienation and regret, lead performances are distinctly naturalistic. But the film lacks sufficient individuatism or narrative drive to compellingly propel Jia's script (co-written with Sun Jianmin and Guan Na), making its title all too true.

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