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There Are Those Who Do Give a Dam!
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"Don't care what others say. Look at the world in your own way." This is what Jia Zhangke, China's leading young director said in a recent TV commercial. And he truly lives up to the slogan again.


Still Life (Sanxia Haoren), Jia's latest offering, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year will give his fans more reason to love him even more.


The story is simple. Two outsiders come to the small town of Fengjie in the Three Gorges area. One decides to re-marry his ex-wife and a woman decides to divorce her husband.


The real-life drama opens on December 14, the same day as Zhang Yimou's epic Curse of the Golden Flower (Mancheng Jindai Huangjinjia), and offers cinema goers striking contrasts.


Both are Golden Lion winners and feature the leading figures of the Chinese film industry. One is a commercial costume epic set in the ancient Middle Kingdom and the other is an art house flick about the realities of modern China.


The decision to run his art house film against such a blockbuster wasn't an easy one to make for Jia. There was a lot of fighting between him and his producer.


"My producer says I am dying for love with my film, sacrificing the Chinese mainland box office," Jia said. However Jia insists mainland cinema goers should be given more options. "There should not be only one kind of movie on our screens," he said.


The two films, in Jia's own words, are not comparable. "Films today are filled with people flying in the air but my film is about people who walk on the ground," he said. "If we have to die for our love let's do it," he said with his signature resolve.


The film has a Chinese title which literally means "good people of the Three Gorges."


But the dam, as Jia notes again and again, is just a backdrop. What really moves him is how ordinary people try to make a better life while facing the great changes of life itself.


In 2005 Jia went to Fengjie, a 2000-year-old town which is now under water, to shoot a documentary about Liu Xiaodong, a painter, known for his portraits of people in the Three Gorges area.


One of Lui's Three Gorges Dam paintings recently sold for 22 million yuan (US$2.75 million). This set a new record for Chinese contemporary art.


One day after shooting the documentary Jia noticed one of Liu's models smiling. He was a local man and his smiling fired the imagination of the award-winning director. "This smile reflects his self-esteem and distrust of the camera," he said. "His smile is saying: How much do you know about the Three Gorges, how much do you know about us?"


Jia couldn't sleep that night. He questioned whether his documentary could present the real lives of the people. When the cameras began to roll people tended to guard their true selves, he thought. He tried to imagine the pressure on local people and the great changes they faced.


He recalled the moment he arrived at the port of Fengjie. A man greeted him offering hotels and restaurants, an old man was in the street counting his salary cent by cent and the cars on the street were offering him a ride.


"Local people call finding a job as 'make a living'," he said. "They're really striving hard to make a life even when they are facing such a great change in life." He decided to do a story about these ordinary people.


What sets Jia aside from other film makers is his fresh angles. In his film he examines local people and the environment from the perspective of two outsiders. Both main characters in the film are from Shanxi Province in North China not the Three Gorges area.


"The director wants me to be like a river and with the flow to bring along the local people's stories," said Zhao Tao, the film's leading actress.


During the two stories of love gained and love lost the audience encounters various local people from gangs and officials to workers and merchants and witnesses the changes they are facing.


And their lives are not so distant from ours.


"Maybe you think their life has nothing to do with yours," Jia said, "But when you try to catch the subway, when you get back from work at 3 am, the feeling of loneliness is the same, the pressure and responsibilities we are facing are the same."


"Life is the ordinary people dancing," he said. "I want to see in an era in which gold is so worshipped. These ‘good people' how many will still care?”



(China Daily December 8, 2006)


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