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Jia ZhangKe may be the most interesting film-maker mainland China has today. Within just a couple of days, I watched “Still Life / Sanxia Haoren” and “The World / Sijie”, and I guess it’s fair to judge from these very recent films that Jia unites the ability to tell a touching story of human desire with the necessary technical skills to present them in a cinematic fashion. This combination is very rare in China, from my experience: you either have very intensive stories, with big and true drama, focussing on how the forces of fate play with human beings. These films are usually ambitious first features, produced at no budget and little professional experience and skill. And then there are the big budget equivalents to a Bruckheimer flick, with more costume than brain and more cuts than dialogue words. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have made their new homes there, and not much hope is that they ever get out of that corner again.

Sanxian Haoren has not much to offer in terms of story or story development. It sets out to show the despair leading to people traveling long ways in search of their lost marriages, even though they know that there is nothing much to be found. And actually the quest is only just about those partners, it is more precisely aimed at the common daughter (who has gone) and at the divorce documents (which are about to be signed). So there is not really a hope for the missions to yield some positive change, some re-establishment of a previous state of happiness. There was no state of happiness, not for the man who bought his wife for 3000 RMB some years ago and now wonders whether she ran away from him, and not for the woman who has not seen her husband for two years and knows that other women have always meant more to him. These stories do not really meet, but they are located in the same surreal area of the three gorges dam, where every day takes the people farther away from the lives they want to lead: by flooding their previous homes, by demolishing their current ones, and by making plans for migration to other places of hope, where more money can be made in the mines of the North, or in the factories in the South. It is all a bit depressing, that’s true, but there is also a very human touch to it: people do care about their lives, their partners and their future, and they are still able to suffer when they are lonely. I could imagine that one reason for making the film was just to show that, because you cannot take it for granted in today’s China.

Review in Villagevoice from 2008 (that’s how long films hover around until anybody sees them…)

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