New Yorker Films
Zhao Tao as Shen Hong and Wang Hongwei as Wang Dongming in the beautifully shot film "Still Life."

STILL LIFE — ** — Han Sanming, Zhao Tao; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; not rated, probable PG (profanity, vulgarity, violence)

The material in "Still Life" is hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it's not really meant to be.

However, some luxurious (or rather slow) pacing and a definite lack of energy sometimes makes this Chinese import live up to its title. That will make it an acquired taste at best to most audiences.

To be fair, though, it's not a worthless endeavor. The film is beautifully shot (using digital cameras), and the points that the filmmaker is trying to make are valid ones.

With this drama, co-screenwriter/director Jia Zhang Ke looks at supposed "progress" in China, in particular the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam.

The project, which is many times the size of the Hoover Dam, has led to big changes in rural China. That includes the flooding out of several small villages.

One of these communities is where a middle-aged coal miner (Han Sanming, going by his real name) used to live. Han has returned home to find his wife and now-teenage daughter. Instead, he's horrified to see that the street where he once lived is underwater.

Another returning resident is Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse who is trying to track down her delinquent husband so she can ask him for a divorce.

Jia has taken supposedly naturalistic approach to filmmaking and, here at least, uses amateur actors and other fresh faces. A few of these newcomers are stiff and appear to be uncomfortable on camera.

The exception there is Zhao, a professional actress who makes us care about her character's predicament more than we otherwise might.

Also, one bizarre bit focuses on an apparent UFO for no good reason. It's goofy and sort of amusing, but it also undercuts the story realism (particularly because it occurs during the Zhao sequence).

"Still Life" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for scattered profanity and crude slang terms, brief violence (a couple of scuffles) and scenes featuring cigarette smoking. Running time: 110 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com