This minimalist drama is set in the ancient city of Fengjie, just as the area is being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, which represents the largest engineering project in history. In this setting, the film interweaves two stories: that of Sanming (Han), a miner revisiting the area after a 16-year absence to find his wife and daughter, and that of Shen Hong (Zhao), a nurse returning after two years to locate her spouse, and to hopefully salvage her marriage from ruins.
Jia Zhangke has made the questionable human impact of social and technological progress in China the theme of his extraordinary movies. His haunting “Still Life” examines the massive currents of change sweeping through his country in the wake of the Three Gorges Dam project, which has displaced two million people. These two mini-dramas are lightly drawn and deeply affecting, examining wreckage past and present. And the accompanying documentary record of a landscape in chaotic transition — collapsing buildings, yawning vistas, wholly submerged villages — adds to the overall mood of dislocation. Life is anything but still in this valedictory tale.