Still Life: A Lesson in the Art of Letting Go

Unlike Jia’s other films, this movie is based on history. Still Life (2006) is about a man in search of his daughter he has not seen for 16 years in the valley of the Three Gorges in China. Crucially, this was same year of the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and a nation-wide panic began as 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.

Still Life (2006) is a notable advance on The World, the two movies making up a trilogy by Jia Zhangke. A recurring theme from his earlier works runs through this movie, focusing on individuals whose lives are interchangeable, disrupted, and displaced by a changing society. However, for the first time, his antiheroes are older, more mature and their lives involve a past that has a direct consequence of their actions in the present. This is much unlike his previous films, like The World, where the characters are aimless, blank canvases that get coloured in as the film commences. Another point in Still Life is that it’s two leads, Sanming (Han Sanming) and Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), are the opposite of Jia’s characters in his other films. Their fates do not have a dead end, and they end up survivors instead of failures.


The Buddhist symbol for Impermanence

The Buddhists believe that the acceptance of impermanence is an essential foundation of meditation. Every aspect of life is fleeting. Nothing lasts. In Still Life, the film offers an understanding of this through buildings falling down in a heap on the ground and people gathering their possessions, moving from one place to another. In Fengjie, people live in the present and change is part of life. The past can be discarded, thrown, forgotten.

Still Life instills in us the difficulty in letting go as we watch a city vanish before our eyes, relationships changing and the lost and loneliness the audience feel seeing all of that unfold on screen. The realness of Jia’s work is jarring, reminding us that the reason we love watching movies is that they are not real, heroes do not save a city and monsters don’t exist, but in Jia’s world, the characters are like you and me. We feel, touch, and love the same, and we despair and feel a uniting sense of loneliness all the same. The essence of realness is part of this artful and philosophical film.


Jia breaks the realist surface of Still Life by the surprise of a flying saucer streaking across the sky. There’s another moment when Shen Hong observes an unidentified object taking off into the sky like a rocket. These science-fiction elements foreshadow the sci-fi tone of the surprise appearence of the sanitation workers with the almost nude bodies of the demolition workers, armed with their spray equipment. They show how a pogressive society has alienated it’s own people. To me, the UFOs represent a jarring contrast between the modern, alien-like white-suited workers and the dirty workers.

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Tobacco: Sanming offers cigarettes to Brother Mark and to his landlord (who, amusingly, not only declines because he doesn’t smoke but because he could not understand Sanming’s Shanxi accent), acommon Chinese custom of forming relationships. Later, in memory of the murdered Mark, Sanming leaves a burning cigarette and passed round cigarettes as a form of farewell to his his fellow demolition workers. This marks as an establishment of companionship through life and death.

Image result for The four thematic segments of Still Life

Liqour:  Liqour symbolizes rapport between Sanming and his fellow demolition workers – when Sanming’s brother-in-law Old Ma refused his offer of two bottles of his local hometown liquor, reinforcing the antagonism on Old Ma’s part and the obstacles that Sanming faces. In contrast to this, Sanming drank liqour with the old man for whom Sanming’s wife appears to be some kind of servant for, paying off her brother’s debt.


Tea: The packet of tea that Shen Hong finds in her husband’s locker is comparable with “Liqour” – signifying the lack of connection between people in the same way as the first appearance of “Liquor,”.

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Toffee: Toffee was offered to Shen Hong from two people closest to him, Brother Mark and his wife specifically a “Big White Rabbit Toffee,” a popular but now rather outdated candy; the toffee represents an exchange, connection, and shared past that links people in this film.


The film compromises of long, sweeping shots, signifying the impossible task of locating his family in a vast valley. It is reminiscent of Romanticist paintings, with the man in the foreground and his gaze fixed on an ever-changing landscape.

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“I once walked into someone’s room by accident and saw dust-covered articles on the desk. Suddenly it seemed the secrets of still life fell upon me. The old furniture, the stationary on the desk, the bottles on the windowsills and the decorations on the walls took on an air of poetic sorrow. Still Life represents a reality that has been overlooked by us. Although time has left deep marks on it, it still remains silent and holds the secrets of life. I entered this condemned city with my camera and I witnessed demolitions and explosions. In the roaring noise and fluttering dust, I gradually felt that life really could blossom in brilliant colors even in a place with such desperation.” – Jia Zhang-ke



4 thoughts on “Still Life: A Lesson in the Art of Letting Go

  1. I really enjoy your review. You really have a great interpretation regarding to the exchange tokens that they use frequently in this movie and what is the meaning behind each token. It is also true that Jia has made a realistic movie which makes us see what actually is going on in real life and the fact that he never really advertised China much. The long shot that he always uses in this movie like you have mentioned is also a very good technique that makes us see the beautiful view. However, i did not realise that it is to signify the impossible task of locating his family after you mentioned it. great! great! review 😀


  2. What a great quote to end off on 🙂 What I love most is that you pointed out how characters in Jia Zhangke’s films are just like you and I – regular people who feel real emotions, not just living in a fairytale or fictional world, because the fact of the matter is that feeling is what makes us human. While the cast members all seem to speak in a very foreign Chinese accent, or a completely different language for some, his films still have the power to unite international viewers solely based on how relatable their emotions are. To add, the cinematography indeed resembles beautiful paintings, especially the ones you featured. Your entire post was extremely insightful and a pleasure to read!


  3. The science fiction elements you discussed in the movie really intrigued me. The alienation of China’s rural people really shows how modern day China is so economically powerful but many people still live in farms and have no idea of the outside world. What may have been familiar and warm may be cold and alien the next. The rapid industrialization of the rural areas force people to adapt to their circumstances. It is truly a testament of human will even those who have lived as farmers their whole life can learn to adapt to their new lives as members of a bustling metropolis.


  4. I appreciated the Buddhist undertones to the film that you’ve emphasized, and agree that loss is perhaps one of the biggest themes around which the film has been developed. The mise-en-scene of cigarettes being passed around do connote a theme of companionship – perhaps moreso an ‘initiation’ of sorts? I too, appreciated the jarring reality of the characters’ lives in the film, and Zia’s attempt to humanize individuals that are often perceived as little more than handful among billions of people in a growing China. The links drawn between the mise-en-scene of the film and romanticist paintings are interesting and appreciated!


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