Another Zhao Tao movie set in three distinct time periods with multiple aspect ratios, this one with an unusual synth score. Qiao is with small-time gangster Bin (Fan Liao of Black Coal, Thin Ice), and after she does five years in prison for firing a gun to save his life during an attack, Bin hides from her, leaving his new girl to explain his absence.
Also there is ballroom dancing – that’s Bin with the mustache wearing all black:
Interesting sidetrack where she spontaneously runs off with a man running a UFO tourism company. On the train he confesses he only runs a convenience store, then she abandons him while he sleeps. Back where she started a decade later, she has internalized the gangster ethos and runs a mahjong parlor, while a pathetic, stroke-crippled Bin has slinked back into her life, only to walk out again after she helps him back on his feet. The final shot of Qiao searching for him as seen through her security system has got nothing on Zhao dancing alone in the snow, but what does? I haven’t loved any of Jia’s pre-2010 films so far, but I’m glad I stuck with him, because A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White have made him one of my favorites of this decade.
James Lattimer in Cinema Scope:
Alongside settings and structural conceits, many of these moods and registers seem to have wandered in from Jia’s other works: the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin; the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures; the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart; or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City, to name just a few, while the presence of Zhao Tao, whose wonderfully understated acting style reaches new heights here, equally conjures up all the other characters she’s played over the years. Of all the references to Jia’s cinematic past, the most explicit ones come from Still Life, as Qiao takes the same ferry down the Yangtze as in the previous film, wearing the same shade of yellow and carrying the same water bottle her spiritual cousin Shen Hong did all those years ago, with the same UFO later passing overhead. Despite these similarities, though, everything is different, as what used to be the present has now become the past. This change is visible both in Zhao Tao’s face and in one of the images shared by both films, a shot of a sign on the river bank showing the projected level of the reservoir. One points to a future yet to happen, the other to a past that only exists in memory, the original now buried under so much water.
Geography: they start in Datong in Shanxi, some four hours west of the center of Beijing. After prison, she travels to Fengjie in Hubei province – this makes nearly a right angle south of Xian and east of Chengdu – crossing the Yangtze halfway there. The man on the train is headed for Karamay in Xinjiang, way the hell in the northwest.