Below is a short blog post I wrote for my Global Cinema II class. I talk about Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006).
Still Life commits to such an elegiac, slow burn style of realism that it shocks us when it does not. A digital video camera pans to the right, capturing passerby against the backdrop of a river. A man drives a sledgehammer into crumbling concrete, over and over. A Brutalist façade rockets into space—wait, what? Jia Zhang-ke throws us off at these moments, when the quiet misery of his characters butts against unplanned bouts of surrealism. He pursues the “uncanny” to alienating, politicized ends.
Almost midway through the film, Jia passes the baton from Sanming, the down-and-out miner looking for his wife, to Hong, the reticent nurse looking for her husband. He does so in about the strangest way possible: Sanming rests by a riverside bannister as the camera pans left, capturing mountains about a mile away in what is now an extreme long shot, save for a bannister chassis at the bottom of the frame. A hollow din is heard on the soundtrack as a heavenly light appears over the mountain, floats over the river and then shoots out the frame. Jia’s slow-moving camera carries the motion to the next shot, where Hong stands downstream, with only river, mountains and some buildings visible in the background, and follows the sight of the UFO. The apparition jets over the mountains, where it is never seen or spoken of again, but we sure remember it.
This random burst of sci-fi, replete with an ominous, purposeful soundtrack, tears Still Life’s world from its muted reality. Considering that Americans may be the demographic most enchanted with UFOs, this is not a bad thing. We want to make sense of that sequence, which is a productive urge so long as we do not get obsessed with banal, irrelevant topics like plausibility, origins and so on. To me, the UFO signals an environmentalist message, in that an alien creature skirts just by Earth only to disappear because all it sees is decay. If the alien was set on destruction, in keeping with sci-fi genre tradition, it sees that its job is nearly complete without any input at all. The strangeness of its appearance, to us, mirrors the strangeness of what it must be seeing, from above.
And yet the UFO’s symbolism must speak to the characters lives, as well, considering it swaps the narrative perspective in one fell swoop. The camera leaves Sanming out of frame when the UFO first appears, so we are unsure if he actually sees it or registers shock at the sight. The camera rotates around Hong, however, emphasizing that she sees it and finds it intriguing. The juxtaposition between Sanming’s resting posture, with his back to the river, and Hong’s erect, attentive stance stresses the latter’s agency. In that previous masterful, unbroken shot set on a boat, where Sanming holds liquor with outstretched hands to no one’s notice, we notice his utter ineffectiveness. His invisibility becomes almost a surreal device on its own, and so it is fitting that he vanishes from the frame when a moment of life-changing consequence occurs. Hong may be the only human who notices the spaceship, and yet she continues about her day. The matters of extraterrestrial life mean nothing to her, for she has too much, too close to the ground, to fix first.