During the 63rd Venice Film Festival last month, Chinese mainland director Jia Zhangke walked away with this year's Gold Lion award for best movie with Still Life
. He's the second Chinese mainland director to win this major film award following Zhang Yimou, who won the award twice in 1992 and 1999.
The prize-winning movie is a documentary-style film shot in a village in the Yangtze River town of Fengjie, which was destroyed by the building of China's Three Gorges Dam. Still Life beautifully captures this town and the lives and relationships of those living within it. Even in the face of deconstruction, these people still try to pursue beautiful loves and lives. The film tells the love stories of two separated couples who meet again in the village. A miner comes back to the village to look for his wife, while another nurse returns for her husband. In the end, one pair of lovers choose to reunite, while the other pair choose to part. Nonetheless, the four all learn the essence of true love.
At a press conference after the award ceremony, French actress Catherine Deneuve, who headed the jury that awarded the top prize, told reporters the beauty of the cinematography and the quality of the story moved the jury very much.
Like always, in Still Life, Jia Zhangke insisted on his documentary-style of filmmaking and his focus on the ordinary lives of ordinary people in fast-changing China. For this purpose, he also insisted on using non-professional actors. In Still Life, the lead role of the coal miner was portrayed by a real-life coal miner.
Jia Zhangke explained his obsession with his documentary style and non-professional performers.
"I have a special love for documentaries. I hope my movies will be a reflection of the natural state of things, which requires the actors and actresses to be in a natural state. Therefore, I prefer non-professional actors. For one thing, they are able to bring out the original state of life. They are also very close to nature."
Although they live ordinary lives, the characters in Still Life take on a more active attitude in pursuing what they want. This is a minor change from previous Jia Zhangke movies, where ordinary folks and social outcasts are often more constrained, like the thief in Pickpocket, the children of laid-off workers in Unknown Pleasures and the migrant workers in The World. They all more or less feel a little confused and helpless.
Jia Zhangke believes the jury at the Venice Film Festival voted for him because Still Life reflected the Chinese people's capacity for action and their ability to stay in control of their lives despite problems and difficulties, touching jury members deeply.
Jia Zhangke's obsession with ordinary people may spring from his personal experiences.
Thirty-six-year-old Jia Zhangke was born in an ordinary family in Fenyang county in Shanxi province. In 1993, Jia was admitted into the Beijing Film Academy. Three years later, he became an independent filmmaker. From a little town to Beijing, Jia Zhangke feels like an outsider, a feeling shared by many who first come to Beijing. As a result, Jia Zhangke has a tendency to intertwine this feeling into many of his works.
The World is representative of this feeling. It tells the story of a group of non-native youngsters who work at a miniature scenic spot called World Park. Jia Zhangke talked about the creation of the movie.
"I think in the process of urbanization, especially after the success of Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, a number of outsiders, myself included, all rushed into the big cities. I came to Beijing from Fenyang, a little town in Shanxi province, in 1993. We are called the generation of drifters. This film tells the problems, stress, confusion, distress and hope of the youngsters, the generation of drifters in the process of accelerated economic changes."
Labeled a member of the Sixth Generation of directors, Jia Zhangke gained wide international acclaim even after his first full-length movie. Xiao Wu, completed in 1997, was awarded at the 48th Berlin Film Festival. It is a reflection of the lives of youngsters in his hometown. Cahier du Cinema, an influential French film magazine, remarked Xiao Wu as having rid the conventionality of traditional Chinese movies and heralded the movie as a symbol of the renaissance and energy of Chinese movies.
However, one feature of the Sixth Generation of directors is they live at a time when the Chinese movie industry is transitioning itself toward marketization. They have to take into consideration box office results while insisting on their own artistic propositions. Jia Zhangke's unique style of making films and his obsession with grassroots themes means sometimes he has to sacrifice the box office results. But the young director stubbornly insists his movies should deal with the real society of modern China and express his affection towards the bottom of the society.
He offered his definition of the Sixth Generation of directors.
"The works of Sixth-Generation directors are characteristic of observing society and the people from a personal angle, using our personal values and based on our personal memories. I think China needs this to record its development. This personal observation is equally valuable to art."
The country was overjoyed when Jia Zhangke brought back the Gold Lion. Even though Still Life has secured screening rights in 25 countries shortly after was shown at the Toronto International film festival, it remains to be seen how the domestic audience will favor this movie. Even though Jia Zhangke has long been widely recognized as a talented filmmaker, insiders worry his strong documentary style and lack of famous cast in the film may hinder the popularity of Still Life domestically.
Nonetheless, Jia Zhangke appeared very confident. He says he believes the Chinese audience will also love this movie once they watch it because it has lifelike scenes and depicts people and things familiar to them.
(CRI.com October 24, 2006)