The Gift of Humanity: Time Like a River

John Touhey

Still Life, 2006. Written and directed by Jia Zhangke.

By the time the massive Three Gorges Dam was nearing its completion in the mid-2000’s, whole towns and villages had already disappeared beneath the waters of the Yangtze River, displacing over a million people. Still Life, a film by Jia Zhangke, is set in Fengjie County, upriver from the colossal project. It presents us with a pair of unconnected stories about two travelers from the same province in the north, each in search of an estranged spouse.

The first story follows Han Sanming, a coal miner whose wife took off 16 years ago with his daughter. When Han goes to visit his former home, his guide points far out to the river. The street where Han once lived is now a tiny island. “A city with 2,000 years of history was demolished in just two years,” a government bureaucrat says with a blasé shrug. Where is Han’s wife? No one seems to know or care. She is just one of countless others who have vanished like the buildings along the riverbank. These are individuals who will soon be reduced to statistics—the kind we see presented in handsome charts in blogs and the New York Times; statistics without faces, that may evoke in us a vague sadness when see them, but that will quickly be dismissed as we turn to other, more diverting matters. The power of Still Life lies in Jia Zhangke’s ability to punch through our indifference and turn these numbers into people again through simple means—shots of ragged travelers on a ferry, a boy singing a love song as he walks through a room, or a teenage girl sadly pondering her future as she stares out at the river.

Unlike you or I, perhaps, Han will not be easily numbed to the humanity of those around him or to his own need for true connection. He presses on with the search for his missing family. “You’re a nostalgist,” remarks a cynical young man whom Han befriends. “We can’t forget who we are,” Han answers simply. We can, of course, but fortunately for our easily distracted world there are always a few poor, stubborn souls like this digger who understand the importance of memory, how it can preserve what is best and most human in us and keep it burning, if only as a tiny ember.

Like many of Jia Zhangke’s films, Still Life is punctuated by moments of unexpected and seemingly out-of-place surrealism, as when Han watches a 1950’s style UFO suddenly rise from a city block and dart into the sky. Is this a figment of Han’s imagination? In the next shot, a woman in a different part of the city watches the same saucer continue its journey. Could this hokey-looking ship possibly be real? Or are both characters imagining the same event? How strange! Yet is the sudden appearance of a UFO any more incredible than the fate of Fengjie County and its inhabitants?

The woman is Shen Hong. She is a nurse and her story will be taken up the middle third of the film. Shen is searching for her husband, one of the businessmen who flourish in the midst of the city’s tragedy. Along with an old army pal of her husband (another digger, this time an archeologist), Shen follows a trail that briefly reminds us there will always be men and women eager to profit from the misery of others. When Shen finds her husband, Guo Bin, his heart is as hardened as the colossal dam that is conspicuously present in the background of the frame. Seeing his willful indifference to all the pain he has caused, the nurse does not seek healing or reconciliation. Shen Hong refuses to put up a fight against the flow of time or history. Instead, she will flee her past and try to remake herself. As she walks off, her story over, it feels as though Shen may have already been defeated in her intention and may soon dissolve and be forgotten.

Then we are back with Han Sanming, who has joined a demolition crew as he waits for his wife’s temporary return to the region. The last third of Still Life unfolds as a quiet response to the despair Han witnesses all around him. People can be reduced to statistics, beaten down, treated like cattle, yet even in the most devalued soul there burns a tiny ember that cannot be completely extinguished. Can Han recover the family he lost? It is possible, though the rest of his journey will be precarious, like the aerialist Han sees in the distance as he sets off into an unknown, but hopeful future.

In this moment, when masses of humanity are again experiencing displacement, this time due not to an engineering project but to war, we need films like Still Life to help us see the situation more clearly. Among the refugees of Syria and other troubled lands, there may be many Han Sanmings and Shen Hongs. Let us welcome those who are adrift, in the hope that by letting them enter our lives, an ember of humanity might be rekindled in our own numb souls.

John Touhey is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New Jersey.