bjyurke’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of-- if not The-- most unique movies I've ever seen, and one of the most expertly crafted screenplays.
Jia Zhangke's Still Life (whose title is some sort of joke) plays out across four segments named after common consumables like tea or cigarettes. All but one of these segments follows Han Sanming, a poor coal miner, whose search for a person takes him through the doomed yet restless city of Fengjie, already half lost to the rising Yangtze River on behalf of the massive Three Gorges Dam project, and whose residents can look uphill from their homes to see government markers where the waters will rise when the next phase of construction completes.
More than anything, the film is unbendingly devoted to walking in the tattered shoes, living in the exact moments, of someone in the exact situation of the protagonist. If the title of the movie can be taken at face value, it's in the hurtfully and effortlessly believable presentation of its setting and characters. The just-a-little-too-high framerate of the film can at first give the impression of budget production, but seems like an intentional trick to subconsciously bleed between the lines of fictional and documentary production.
The one section not dealing with Sanming, titled "tea", is raised in the middle of the film and briefly bookended, either ingeniously or simply bewilderingly, by the lone surrealist visual elements in the movie. Shen Hong, a nurse, is also seeking someone across the sinking town, but for different ends.
The sections, all titled after things we commonly share with one another, connect a loose theme beneath the film's cruel title. People uprooted, always on the move and asking others what their next step is, whose relationships and acquaintances and material uncertainty are more permanent structures in their lives than the concrete structures around them, which may be gone tomorrow. A cup of tea or an owed cigarette, a goodbye shot of liquor between men of meager lives and possessions, give meaning to each lived moment in a life that must go on.