Friday, July 19, 2013

Long Life, Connected Lives

The incredibly important film Still Life (San Xia Hao Ren) by the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke is broken into four subtitled sections: "Cigarettes" . . . "Liquor" . . . "Tea" . . . "Candy" . . . .

Still Life (San Xia Hao Ren)
Sanming compares the image on the Chinese 10 yuan note
with the actual vista of Qutang Gorge near Fengjie

The film itself tells two stories: that of an ordinary worker who travels from his home in North China to the Three Gorges area to find his ex-wife, and his daughter; and the parallel story of a woman who comes to the same place to find her husband and ask him for a divorce.

As for the device of these four named sections, I wonder if it is obscure to most American viewers of the film. It may not be apparent that these props are that important to the action; and their relevance to the overall arc of the film may be even less clear. To me, however, the reference to these four items provides a deep set of allusions and connections. I think it comes from traveling to Taipei c. 1979 . . . .


There are things I was told, upon first arriving in Taiwan, that made a deep impression on me, and I am only just now casting my mind back and trying to remember the exact circumstances. I'm not sure whether it was a friend, or the director of our school, but within the first day or so of being there it was pointed out to me (and to all of us) that there were a set of customs and behaviors that we would observe in the people living in Taiwan, and that we might do well to adapt to some of these customs and behaviors if we wanted to fit in.

One of those behaviors was this: no one simply smoked their own cigarettes, in the way in which we were accustomed in the United States. Everyone offered a cigarette from his pack to everyone else he was with. (This was mostly a male behavior.) And everyone took the cigarettes.

One of the things this meant was that in very short order you had a whole circle of people with whom you were engaged in a little history of sharing. Reciprocity, starting on a very small scale.

This reciprocity extended to other behaviors, paying for food being an important one.

Another thing this meant was that you very quickly got exposed to the local types of cigarettes -- including the unforgettable Long Life.

Chang Shou - Longlife
CLASSIC Premium Deluxe - 20 Filter Cigarettes

If I were to smell the smoke from a Long Life cigarette today, I would be instantly transported back to Taipei c. 1979. (I can almost accomplish this by mentally summoning that smell.)

Perhaps the flavor of Long Life cigarettes was good. I believe people there described them as very "fragrant" (xiang).

What I am certain of was that the nicotine rush they provided was a relief from the heat. (And a Pavlovian reward for memorizing that next set of 10 Chinese characters.)

The bright yellow pack was cheerful.

The sentiment expressed in the name was hopeful -- if hopelessly ironic.

The beautiful seal script in which chang shou was written on the package were a reminder of just how much all of us loved soaking up every beautiful detail of the traditional Chinese culture available all around us at that time in Taipei.

But must of all, Long Life contained the promise of connectedness.

Still Life (San Xia Hao Ren)
Connecting over a glass of bai jiu

"Cigarettes" . . . "Liquor" . . . "Tea" . . . "Candy" . . . in the film Still Life also all contain the promise of connectedness. They are the social lubricants that enable people who find each other across the vast space of China -- and dwarfed by the gargantuan Three Gorges environment -- to grope toward some small bit of connection. They are small things, to be sure, but they are accessible to anyone and can be deployed in order to gain establish a lifeline, no matter how foreign the circumstances.

To me, this is very, very important. Because the truth is, China -- the world! -- is a big and forbidding social space; and it is a miracle that small points of connection happen.

When I was 20 years old and in the middle of my college studies and off on the adventure of my life, I probably was living too fast and large to appreciate these fundamental truths. I guess that's what the increasing stillness of old(er) age is for.

More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . .

Related posts

I could go on and on about City of Sadness: about everything from the sound of slippers scraping across the floor to the history of the 228 incident that the film illuminates . . . the funeral scene, and the wedding scene . . . . But more than anything, it's about Taiwan nature, Taiwan separateness, and Taiwan rebelliousness.

(See Taiwan Through "City of Sadness")

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry))

"All the while that they were talking the half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston's head: 'Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's!' It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing the bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth. Yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing." (p. 88)

(See Ambient Sound - Lifeline to Liberty?)

Each story in Taipei People is about a person who ended up in Taiwan after the war. More than anything, the story "Glory's by Blossom Bridge" is about the destiny of so many men who came from the mainland to Taiwan: ending up old and alone.

(See Taipei People: Thinking of Home )