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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Jia Zhangke's "Still Life" wins Golden Lion at 63rd Venice Film Festival

Beating out such formidable competition as The Queen, and Children of Men, Jia Zhangke's Still Life receives the grand prize at the oldest, and longest consistently running film festival in the world.

Jia Zhangke (The World, Unknown Pleasures) is considered in his own country to be a leading figure in a group that is known as the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese directors (creators of films made post Tiananmen Square, from 1990 on). These directors make films mostly outside the main Chinese film system and play for the most part on the international film festival circuit. Zhangke has raked up an impressive 37 international award nominations for his work thus far in his career, with 21 wins from the Berlin Film Festival in 1998 to the São Paulo International Film Festival in 2005. Zhangke is indeed a filmmaker to watch.

For Still Life, Zhangke returns to a familiar setting with a familiar theme. A town in Fengjie county of Chongqing Municipality, China, on the Yangtze River is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Against the backdrop of the mammoth engineering project in the declining city, a man and woman visit the town to locate their estranged spouses, and in the process become witness to the societal changes.

The man (Sanming Han in only his forth film) is a poor mine worker from Shanxi, who arrives in the dilapidated town in the hope of finding his unknown daughter and his ex-wife (Lizhen Ma in her only film) who left him nearly 16 years ago. At the same time, a nurse from Taiyuan (Tao Zhao in her forth straight film for Zhangke), has come to Fengjie in search of her husband who's been missing for almost two years. Though they are perfect strangers, their parallel quests for missing loved ones signifies the need to retrieve what lies hidden in the past, as an ever-changing landscape threatens to bury memories deep under water.

Many may consider the plot of Still Life to be a small story, or a quiet little movie with aspirations of deeper meaning than it can possibly attain. But they would be wrong. This subtle examination of modern life through the experiences of regular people living out their lives during challenging situations is exactly the kind of plot today's Chinese film export is all about. And its depth of feeling and suppressed (contained?) emotion is brilliantly conveyed by the controlled expressions of the actors faces. This is exactly the kind of film at which Zhangke excels.

I don't know if Still Life will have the profile necessary to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film this year. After all, the Academy Awards are still a bit far off. But I anticipate the film will continue to receive international accolades and its director the acclaim he deserves. If Still Life makes its way any where near you I say see it. It's likely to be the best representation of Chinese cinema you're going to see this year, and for many years to come.

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