Before I start:
I watched this film with Chinese subtitles so considering my skills in this written language, not every key point might have been listed.
And so, we begin.
Still Life had a sense of slowness in this film, much slower than The World and it showcases the life of two people; Sheng Hong & Sanming with a majority of the film revolving around Sanming. The key point in this film is the search for someone.
There are a few themes that can be identified in this film but I would like to start with this: the mystery behind the characters.
We realise that at the start of each character, their names were not mentioned and it was only towards the end do we know the names of the individual characters. Pondering over this, I believe that perhaps by doing this, it creates a sense of mystery for the character and to get any emotional attachment to the characters. Possibly by doing this, it would invoke us as an audience to look at it as the life of just another ordinary person; nothing special.
- The ever-changing village and the victims of it
Still Life revolves around the Three Gorges Dam and the people around them. For this momentous project; support from China’s prominent leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have been used to convey the necessity and grandeurs of this project, economically and for the future of China. However, this comes at a cost.
Houses been torn down to make way for the dam with little or no governmental incentives, workers losing limbs due to their job scope and even the possibility of not being compensated for their work.
Is progress worth at the cost of a human life and lifestyle? Modernisation is supposed to benefit everyone however, we do see many people around the village considering moving out beyond the village to relocate.
China’s modernisation paints a picture of benefitting those who are not from the area; tourists, investors etc. but those who are around here, bleed and sweat for actual change to happen through the tearing down and demolitions of buildings.
It portrays a similar picture in ancient China (I might be wrong here), where the Great Wall as an idea of modernisation is built through blood and sweat; identical to the workers who are physically modernising China.
- The Workers’ Plight
For all that hard labour, sweating in the sun and repeatedly continuing doing the mundane act of hitting the bricks and debris to tear down the buildings, the workers were only paid approx. 5 yuan a day. This equates to approx. SGD 1 dollar. And this was possibly one of their only source of income if not they would have considered working elsewhere.
We could consider that doing this might have been better than staying in their village where they might be facing poverty especially with the rise of modernisation, running a farm might not be self-sustainable anymore or even the possibility that they were told by the government to remove their farms and land to make way for expansion.
The plight of the workers shows us that not everyone is compensated equally. As mentioned above, the victims of modernisation are those who lose something; an arm, a leg, their homes etc. And clearly, in its act of rapid modernisation, the average citizen is forgotten to make way for those who are better-off especially those born in cities that are already modernised
To add-on, towards the end, we see Sanming having dinner with the group of workers he was working with and mentions that he would be heading back home to continue being a miner. Enticed by this offer due to the good pay; 200 yuan a month, approx. 40 SGD and considering that the work is about to be complete, they agreed on going together. Sanming however warns them the dangers of working in the mines; over 10 people die a year, working from day to night and even times where they’re unable to return back at night and sincerely request them to reconsider. And in the end, we see the workers following Sanming and as they walk towards the harbour, he sees a person walking on a tightrope; possibly signifying the fragility of life amid progress or carrying on.
And here we clearly see the worker’s plight. Despite the dangers they may face, they understood that there is a need to work to carry on earning money and therefore, they are willing to risk their life in order to gain this better life especially since the work provided in the mines provided a greater reward; high risk, high reward.
- The Cigarettes, Liquor, Tea and Toffee
At various instances of the film, these 4 items were highlighted. Each item was used as a different scenario for example, liquor was used as an offering to others as a source of favour while also being used for happier times and toffee was used to signify the building of connection between two different people.
I might be over thinking this but I this is my own personal view.
Still Life paints a picture of the urge to continue despite the struggle as we see Sanming continuously working hard to find his ex-wife and to earn money even towards the end when he decides to bring his ex-wife back but needs to payback the debts from his ex-wife’s brother. Similarly, we see this in Tao, to tell her husband the truth, she continuously to seek him, not knowing his whereabouts. It might be ironic to say that “the urge to continue despite the struggle” might not relate much to Tao since she decides to divorce him but I believe that it is her continuous effort to notify him on the current situation plays a greater importance in these scenes.
There are still many themes we can gather from Still Life and you may refer below to get a deeper understanding of this fantastic film.