Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Film: Still Life & The Boss of It All

Jia Zhangke's Still Life opens with a pair of extended duration, lateral camera movements that showcase the passengers of a river ferry en route to the Three Gorges's city of Fengjie. The last of the riders is Han Sanming (the name of both the actor and the male protagonist), who has arrived in search of his ex-wife and estranged daughter, neither of whom he has seen in sixteen years. After being extorted first by a group of small-time con artist, and then a young man who offers to take him to his wife's former address - which like much of Fengjie is now underwater - Han has a tense run-in with his ex's family. After discovering that she is working elsewhere, Han spends much of the remaining film, shuttling across the region, helping to the level structures chosen for demolition for 40 0r 50 yuan a day with his fellow laborers.

In fact, as Jia emphasizes, the water level was set to rise on the first of May, 2006, displacing an even greater number of Fengjie residents. Throughout the film, we see reminders of this fact in both the markings painted onto the sides of condemned buildings (noting how high future water levels) and also in the collapsing structure themselves, which the aforementioned laborers continuously level with their sledgehammers. Parenthetically, it remains worth noting that Jia made a second film on the same site last year, the non-fictional Dong, that details the same process of destruction.

After transitioning to the film's second part, utlizing a digitally-enhanced, unidentified flying object to bridge the split, Jia turns to Hong Shen's (Tao Zhao) search for her missing husband who disappeared two years earlier. Unlike Han, she and her husband seem to be more affluent, thereby figuring China's nouveau upper class, buffered by the nation's 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics.' Indeed, Hong attends a gathering on a balcony overlooking the region, where upon the flat-owners request, a bridge is illuminated, providing one of the year's most indelible visuals. As one of the party-goers puts it, "Chairman Mao dreamt it," but this gentleman "made it happen."

Indeed, Still Life highlights the substitution that has recently occurred in the country: China's latter-day, fugitive brand of capitalism has replaced the earlier cult of personality. Whereas the former transformed the once-idyllic landscape, submerging the ancient valley communities and displacing more than one million of its residents - perhaps more than any of the director's previous work Still Life highlights the human cost of communism - the scavengers of the new order prey on persons like Han, doing anything and everything to get ahead. Jia is dubious toward both, lamenting each's role in facilitating the cultural amnesia of the present. In one of the film's many concrete symbols, Han holds a bank note with Three Gorges in front of the landscape. Commerce has replaced art in the new China.

In fact, the history of Chinense visual aesthetics is cardinal to Still Life: that is, Jia repeatedly echoes Chinese landscape painting in his multi-plane compositions of Fengjie and its environs - especially in the film's opening shot that simulates the lateral expanses of scroll painting. In Jia's deep space compositions, registered in DV with that medium's seemingly infinite depth-of-field (the director's chosen format since his 2002 Unknown Pleasures), the filmmaker emphasizes the transformation 20th century landscape under Maoist communism - finding form in the high-rise tenements that surround the water; the demolition of these structures by the low-paid unskilled laborers, to make way for the flood waters; and the river itself, concealing centuries of Chinese history.

As with his previous masterpieces Platform (2000) and The World (2004), Still Life ultimately figures cultural erasure - the disappearance of a uniquely Chinese civilization - finding expression in the film's focal bodies of water; its collapsing Communist-era housing complexes; a series of once popular products from China's past, each of which Jia details via on camera titles; standards passionately sung by a child and replicated in ring tones; and finally, the two couples searching for their disappeared loves. Of these figures, it is likewise worth noting that they often occupy the foreground, in front of the sledge-hammeer swinging workers, and the waters beyond - each therefore conveying the film's principle theme on a series of receding planes. Hence, the director has not only discovered the perfect site for his subject, but has produced compositions to amplify these concerns. In other words, Still Life may be the director's finest film to date, reaffirming Jia's status as the greatest director of China's 'Sixth Generation,' and one of the few mainland directors who has produced works equal to those of its Republic of China counterparts, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang.

In comparison to the exacting control Jia maintains over his mise-en-scène, Danish auteur Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All literally leaves it to chance: von Trier utilizes a new technique he calls Automavision, which "entails choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to choose when to tilt, pan or zoom." In The Boss of It All, von Trier's randomly-generated compositions (after the initial set-ups) frequently crop the picture's actors. The film's takes are uniformly very short, with "jumps" occurring even on lines of dialogue. In sum, von Trier's style operates independently of his content, stressing the artificality of its implementation and even the absurdity of reading form in content. However it is von Trier's emphasis on the former - on artificiality - that is continually highlighted by his aesthetic (or one might say his anti-aesthetic). To this end, von Trier himself appears reflected in the glass of office structure in the film's first shot and in a subsequent set of voice-overs where he refers to his manipulation of narrative information.

Likewise, the above self-reflexivity is figured in The Boss of It All's subject: of an actor (Jens Albinus) employed to pretend he is the eponymous "Boss of it All," which the film's actual boss Ravn (Peter Gantzler) uses as a diversion so that he can treat his employees poorly. For their part, from the barometer-obsessed, rage-filled country bumpkin Gorm to the sexually forth-right, if financially imprudent Lise, Ravn's employees are as quick-witted as their new supervisior - which is to say that they have been duped by their deceptively pathetic boss in his quest to sell to an Icelandic gentleman who still harbors a chip on his shoulder over 400 hundred years of Danish rule.

As much of The Boss of It All's success depends on the last-minute plot twists, I will avoid saying anything else about von Trier's latest, except to say that its humor often hits the mark - though it is a more conventional office comedy than the recent BBC and NBC depictions of the subject; if anything, the comedy compares to the automatically-generated plots of situation comedies (thank you to my viewing companion Lisa for the insight) such as Extra's meta "When the Whistle Blows" - The Office's evil twin. Perhaps this is one of the reasons von Trier so insistently reveals the device, beyond the director's sometimes knee-jerk rejections against conventional structures (like his own). Regardless, The Boss of It All is easily my favorite von Trier film since Breaking the Waves (1996) - though I will admit I am hardly an advocate of the director's work. For what its worth, Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) remain two of my least favorite films of the decade, the former for its audience-directed hostility and the latter for its support of the slaughter of U.S. innocents. Then again, I guess von Trier is interesting enough to have gotten me to see his latest film, in spite of these earlier atrocities - whether that speaks well of von Trier or poorly of me is not clear.

The Boss of It All is currently screening at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village and is destined eventually for the television network of the same name. Still Life, which was recently screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, is also available on remarkably inexpensive English subtitled Region 3 and Region 6 DVDs.


Anonymous said...

Michael, did you see Manderlay, and if so, what was your impression of that?

Also, any chance you'll get to see The Fifth Empire, as I know it's screening next week at the Anthology Film Archives. I'd love to get your report on that one.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Nathaniel, You can count on a Fifth Empire report - I'm very excited.

Also, I have not seen Manderlay and in spite of my enjoyment of von Trier's latest, I still have no inclination. Von Trier + slavery = potentially 139 of the worst spent minutes in my life.