The Distancing Effect in Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’

Jia Zhangke’s film ‘Still Life’ tells the story of a man in search of his daughter in the valley of the Three Gorges in China. The man has not seen his daughter for sixteen years whereas the old address of his estranged wife is the only clue to his family’s whereabouts. Crucially, the film was made in 2006, the same year that the Three Gorges Dam was completed and the water levels of the Yangtze began to rise. The man quickly discovers that his estranged wife’s house is already completely submerged by water. Throughout the film, the monumentality of the task of locating his family is signified by long and sweeping shots, aesthetically reminiscent of Romanticist paintings, with the man in the foreground and his gaze transfixed by the ever-changing landscape in the background.

The impending force of the Yangtze is emphasised in a number of shots that indicate where the water levels of the river are expected to be in the future. Streets, buildings, homes, an entire city in short, is expected to give way to the Yangtze at 156.5 meters above sea level. As the Chinese character on one building indicates, anything in the way of this mega-project is labelled ‘demolish’ (拆, chāi). It is important to note that such demolitions, often forced on tenants with little or no compensation, are one of the major sources of social instability in China. Where will the people that inhabit these buildings go? What will they do? Metaphorically speaking, what will the future of China look like. The blown out highlights and lack of visual details in a number of poignant scenes in the movie indicate that the man’s future, China’s future, is diffused, ambigious, literally not clear.

An important reoccurring theme in the film are physical injuries carried by people the man periodically comes in contact with. As the naked bodies of the workers who are relentlessly demolishing the vanishing city indicate, the viewer assumes that these injuries are incurred by the horrendous working conditions on the ground. The vulnerability of their bodies is visually emphasised by juxtaposing their bodies with a group of men wearing protective gear and gas masks as they spray poison to, ironically, eradicate the outbreak of diseases. Another scene depicts the family of a one-armed man angrily fighting for injury compensation with the manager of a demolition company. Apart from representing physical injuries, Zhangke depicts people who have become victims of social injustice and greed, constantly fighting with each other over material possessions, money and space.

In this socially tense environment, corruption and organised crime apparently blossom. One worker tells his comrades that he was attacked by a gang who forcefully took over the contract of a demolition job. Rather than originating from the falling debris of a building, it becomes evident that the injuries represented in the film originate from a rising level of crime and violence. The water levels set at 156.5 meters thus also indicate a virtual border below which, quite literally, the underworld rules.

Another related reoccurring theme is money. In one scene the man curiously compares a view of the valley with a depiction of the Three Gorges on a 10 Yuan bill. This romanticised relationship with money as a physical object is quickly subverted by various people who try to rip the man off. This allusion to trickery, or tricking people out of their money, is made at the very beginning of the film when a faux magician declares that he has successfully converted Euros into Renminbi with the shake of a hand. Another scene shows a man watching Chow Yun-Fat burning a US Dollar bill on TV. These scenes can be read as a commentary on the increasing dominance of China vis-a-vis the more ‘established’ economies of Europe and America. I would argue however that by referring to money as a vanishing trick, it is the very value of money and the people’s belief in the value of money that is being questioned here.

In ‘Still Life’, everything has a price: a ride on a motorcycle, a night in a hostel, a day’s worth of labour. Even the beating of a man, as the protagonist finds out, is duly renumerated with money. Towards the end of the film when the man has finally found his estranged wife, he also discovers that she too has a price. Forced into quasi-prostitution by poverty and debt, the man learns from his wife’s patron that he will have to pay 30.000 Yuan for her to be released. The wife’s destitute condition, imprisoned by economic exploitation, is tragically signified by a shot in which she clings on to a set of bars like a prisoner begging for her freedom.

In spite of its apparent embrace of realism and documentary aesthetics, a number of scenes in ‘Still Life’ clearly allude to the imaginary with computer-generated imagery: a woman sees an extra terrestrial object flying in the sky, a bizarre looking building takes off from the ground like a rocket. Even the collapse of a large building in the distance, as an obviously computer generated scene, sits in complete contrast with the representation of ‘reality’ in the rest of the film. Here, Zhangke applies a theatrical technique called the ‘distancing effect’ (Verfremdungseffekt) coined by the playwright Bertolt Brecht who argued that it prevents the audience from losing itself passively in the play. In other words, the representation of otherworldly and physically impossible occurrences in the film allows the viewer to question its narrative, even question the very format of the cinematic apparatus. The consequence of this effect, as Brecht argued, “leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.”


Bertolt Brecht

The academic Ping Zhu has speculated in a recent paper that the original Chinese title of the film ‘The Good People of the Three Gorges’ [Sanxia Haoren] is, in fact, a hidden homage to Bertolt Brecht’s classic book ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ [Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan] from 1943. There is plenty of evidence for this to be the case I would ad. In Brecht’s original play three gods visit the Chinese province Szechwan to look for a ‘good’ person in a society riddled by egoism. In the play this ‘good’ person remains illusive and the gods quickly discover that helping other people has become secondary to making a financial gain in this world. In ‘Still Life’, as signified in another otherworldly and bizarre ‘distancing effect’ scene, three men dressed as gods are not as much looking for a ‘good’ person as they are bored, sitting at a table, playing on their cell phones. In short, they have given up looking for a good person.

Taking this comparative analysis between Brecht’s ‘Good Person’ and Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ one step further, is important to note a number of important aspects the play and the film have in common. Both function is a powerful critique of capital (lower case ‘c’) in which the body has become and exchangeable and expendable commodity in monetary terms. Both also functions as a critique of Capitalism (upper case ‘C’) in which the citizen is represented enslaved in a system of exploitation. In such a system is is difficult, if not impossible, to be a ‘good’ person. Similarly, like in Brecht’s play, the locality of the Three Gorges functions as a parable not only for the rest of China, but also, any type of economic system based on exploitation of labour.

The extent of this form of exploitation of labour is vividly illustrated in the final minutes of the film. The protagonist tells a group of workers that in the coal mines the daily pay rate is 200 Yuan. As the demolition job in the Three Gorges comes to an end, the workers are eager to join the protagonist on his next job. In spite of warning them that working in the mines is very dangerous and that many workers die every year, the group joins the protagonist the following day. In the end, the man never found his daughter. His family is substituted by a community of migrant workers who, in search of the a better life, cross from one side of China to another. This journey, as the last shot of the film indicates, is akin to a high wire act.

This blog post is an abbreviated and early version of a forthcoming journal article. As I am developing the paper, any comments or critical feedback would be highly appreciated. You can either leave a comment on this post here, or email me at marcus.bohr (at) network.rca.ac.uk for any feedback.

‘Still Life’ is available as a DVD. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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One thought on “The Distancing Effect in Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’

  1. Hi, I just finished to watch this movie, and found your analysis after, and I’ve got to say i’m glad to have found it. Thanks for bringing up the connection with Brecht’s work (a connection i didn’t see during the movie), but I think you’re absolutely right. I’m definitely going to watch more of Zhangke’s movies, he’s clever and inspired with his shots, and i can’t help but think there’s some kind of ken loach approach in his movies (he shows injustice/inequality but without judging directly, wants you more as an observer than try to rally you to some cause). But living in China myself, I can sadly testify how everything zhangke portrays in this movie is easy to verify : the relation to money is unsane, moral values are completely undermined by poverty, greed and corruption, in the big cities they see great economic future, but at what cost, this future won’t happen for a huge amount of chinese people.

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