Jia Zhangke, who has emerged as one of the great artists from the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, is one of those directors whose work will always be embraced and discussed by a number of devoted followers but whose discursive, searching approach to narratives and the people who inhabit them keep his films from appealing to a wider audience. At this juncture, I can’t recall any of his earlier features creating much of an art-house stir once they found distributors after their North American festival debuts; it’s a shame because, despite their refusal of cinematic conventions, Jia’s films are hardly ossified, self-contained art works–in fact, today there are no films reaching American screens that reveal quite so much about the state of contemporary China, as important a topic as anything else going on in the world today (despite the understandable glut of films on Iraq and Darfur).
As with his earlier Unknown Pleasures and The World, Jia Zhangke’s masterful Still Life is shot on digital video and skirts the line between documenting its nation’s transitional woes as it moves towards promised free-market independence, and creating fictional narratives around these events. Yet those descriptions can’t begin to illustrate the delicacy with which Jia surveys the scene, or the miraculous mixture of hope and despair that seems to spring from every moment he captures. For one thing, Jia embraces the video medium’s grain and slightly muddy hues to create something wonderfully, unexpectedly rich; much of Still Life (in an echo of the film’s English title) has a tint of chiaroscuro, casually placed tableaux of smooth bodies illuminated by pockets of natural golden sunlight, the camera drifting by.