Specters of Realism and the
Painter’s Gaze in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life

By Corey Byrnes

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 24, no. 2 (Fall 2012), pp. 52-93

This essay explores Jia Zhangke’s 2006 film Still Life (Sanxia haoren) from two related perspectives: first, the still powerful discourse of realism that continues to shadow discussions of Chinese cultural production; and second, Jia’s formal and aesthetic experimentation. Beginning with a survey of some of the many types of “realisms” that have been ascribed to Jia, it goes on to situate his work within the context of a recent reappraisal of Bazinian realism that emphasizes the filmmaker’s ethical commitment to his or her subject. In Still Life, which centers on a handful of Three Gorges cities in the midst of being demolished to make way for the Three Gorges dam and reservoir, this ethical commitment is bodied forth by formal structures appropriated and adapted from earlier artistic forms. This virtuoso experiment in remediation and hypermediation draws from a broad array of sources–European portraiture, Socialist Realism and Chinese landscape painting, as well as Tang poetry and contemporary pop music–to reveal precisely how cultural practices have shaped and continue to shape the Chinese landscape. At the core of Jia’s aesthetic, historical and spatial investigations are the beleaguered people who have been forced to make way for the wholesale reconstitution of this particular landscape. These are, in the Chinese title of the film, the “good people of the Three Gorges.”