For the record, even the most experimental movie I’d watched before I watched Sanxia Haoren was not even close to how experimental this is. The usual comments my classmates made when they first watched the movie in class are : “crazy shit”, “weird”, “unexplainable”, “I don’t understand” but I’d be most comfortable going with this comment: “WHAT THE HELL?!?!” — the kind of what-the-hell in the positive way, of course.

Sanxia Haoren (or internationally known as Still Life) is a 2006 Chinese movie directed by Jia Zhangke and starred by Han Dejun, Han Sanming, Wang Hongwei, and Zhao Tao. This movie offers a strong criticism towards Chinese government and their project about Three Gorges Dam in Fengjie, China, that requires the government to evacuate all residents, the one and half million of them all. Not only that, that project will also erase thousands of years of Fengjie history.

Jia Zhangke summarizes up the story of all Fengjie residents beautifully through the personal stories of two different people who are not acquainted with each other but they both have the same goal : come to Fengjie to seek for their significant others that have lost for years. Han (Han Sanming) is a middle-aged man working in the minefield and looking 16-years-long-lost wife along with their only daughter. Meanwhile, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) is a nurse who looks for her husband, an engineer working in Three Gorges Dam and leaves her two years before.

Through Still Life, Jia Zhangke throws a rather harsh social criticism towards Chinese government about that project that doesn’t consider the society’s interest. Not only people who are victimized, the families torn apart, destroyed homes that are the victims, but also the historical artifacts that are still valuable and important for the residents also become the victims of the government’s ambition. Another criticism is about how inconsiderate government is, by easily destroying residents’ homes. Also in one scene where a bridge’s beautiful lamps are turned on to “entertain” a government official that wants to pass by that bridge and wants to see that lit bridge.

Symbolic associations in this movie that create psychological resonance are seen through the surreal and shocking aspects of the movie, like the sudden appearance of a UFO in the background or a flying building. The meaning of all that is open to interpretation, said Jia Zhangke, and he once refused to dictate what the meaning is, although later on in some interviews he told the media about the meaning behind the UFO and flying building. Meanwhile, the metaphoric associations is given through the writing of “Cigarettes”, “Liquor”, “Tea”, and “Candy”, that at once looked so meaningless. But Shelly Kraicer later on explained in her writing about the meaning about the four Chinese letters shown randomly in the movie, which are the substitutes of the four common household needs (fuel, rice, oil, and salt) that represent the daily needs of Chinese society. Jia substitutes these four elements with the substance of addiction.[1] With all of these aspects, Still Life manages to raise the emotion and curiosity of the audiences.

[1] Kraicer, Shelly. “China’s Wasteland: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life”Cinema Scope, volume 29.