Let’s start here: Jia Zhang-ke‘s Still Life “blows everything else out of the water”—There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, all the year’s Oscar competition, in fact anything you can think of of recent commercial vintage.

Or maybe it’s into the water, since imminent immersion’s the theme—for towns immemorial along the banks of the Yangtze River, where China’s Three Gorges dam project lurches toward completion, yet another of Yeats’s rough, slouching beasts whose hour has finally arrived.

Paradoxically though, almost everyone works in demolition, gangs roving up and down the river, lighting out for whatever serendipitous employment territory they can find. No country for old men here—for “nostalgics,” as one character calls them, living on memories of a world past vanishing. But yuan, the paper currency—always time for those, every denomination a picture of some natural wonder or other threatened with extinction. And even in this brave new world of capital, where “change” is the official watchword (hello, Barack Obama) and everything’s been ruthlessly commodified—three yuan for a ride to an island underwater, another three or twenty for a night in a shabby workmen’s hotel—there’s still that vestigial craving for the obsolete and comfy. Like those waterfall engravings on the bills …

Or maybe it’s something else—the future as SF excavation site, some weird archaeological dig, like Blade Runner in reverse. Which shouldn’t be surprising if you consider that Jia (in Unknown Pleasures) and his cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai (in All Tomorrow’s Parties—aka the “Chinese Blade Runner“) have tramped over this kind of ecologically straitened turf before. Strange and otherworldly, even spiritually ravaged, like the “burned-over district” in 1840s New York state—except instead of Jesus saving, there’s now unappeasable Moloch, lord of the economic flies. A variation on the technological sublime, in the 18th-century Burkean sense, combining sheer raw terror with reverential awe …

So buildings fall to rubble, or shoot off into CGI-confected space, and still the awe remains—as we’ve witnessed here at the Reader, our own Burgess Shale of evolutionary opportunity. One species dying, another—or maybe several, a dozen—springing to new, unruly life, like weeds in the concrete fill at the Three Gorges site. Some call them teratisms, monsters from the economic id, but I say: who’s the last Morlock standing? … assuming there’s anyplace left to stand.

So no place of grace in this postdiluvian world, nor home for anyone either—which obviously has to be the case, since homes are for wusses only, the “nostalgics” who make bad choices, who don’t know how to cope. But random variation is the everlasting engine and capitalism the universal solvent, subverting all the wayward, clinging molecules—which brings us back to total immersion again. Just keep moving, people … or swimming, trying to stay above the waterline.

Which is why I think Still Life‘s a “great” movie, if not exactly a film you’d warm to. Audiences exit the theater and everyone seems mystified, vaguely drained or unsettled. Because they’ve seen the future and none of us is in it—or, to drag in Whitman, inadvertent apostle of dystopian transformation, of change without an end point or promise of repose:

  Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
  Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
  What is this earth to our affections? …

  And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

  O my brave soul!
  O farther farther sail! …
  O farther, farther, farther sail!