Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) stands somewhat at the intersection of the director’s earlier, more distinctly fictional, narrative films, and with his more recent, documentary style releases. While there is a plot and characters, this picture also captures a specific moment in time and records a pronounced and profound shift in the Chinese landscape and the culture around the Three Gorges town Fengjie. In so doing, Jia crafts what remains his greatest work, and indeed, it is one of the best films of the last 25 years.
The film follows, first, Sanming (played by Sanming Han, a relation of the director’s), a character who first appeared in Jia’s Platform (2000). He travels to Fengjie in search of his wife, Missy Ma, who, with their daughter, left him 16 years ago. The reason for the delay in tracking down his family is unclear. He’s told by her brother that