The classic notion that the fate of an entire populace lies in the hands of its leaders is nowhere more evident today than it is in China. In 2009, the country will complete its Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in the world, along the Yangtze River basin where tens of thousands of Chinese have perished from floods in the last century. Still Life, by celebrated Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, is set in Fengjie, a town that will be entirely submerged by the waters of the dam. Like much of Jia's work, this narrative feature is an incisive commentary on Chinese society through the eyes of a few protagonists whose lives have been altered by public policy. It's the world writ small, but with such eloquence that China herself appears contained in the compact body of the film's principal character, a miner named Sanming.

Grappling with the toll of his country's outsized development--over one million people will be displaced by the dam--Jia explores lives interrupted and altered, but also the ineluctable sense of progress the dam drizzles into the zeitgeist. When completed, Three Gorges promises to relieve the country of its dependence on coal, an industry, according to human-rights organizations, that accounts for 20,000 deaths a year in China. It is the conflicting values represented by the dam project which inspire the plot of Still Life, and the forfeiture of ordinary Chinese in the name of social change that fuels all of Jia's films. Though known to a limited art-house audience in the U.S., the filmmaker is widely recognized internationally; Still Life garnered the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006. Jia's films are singular and beautiful and, like the opening tracking shot in Still Life, a study in the expressive potential of the medium.

The film begins with Sanming (Han Sanming) arriving in Fengjie in search of his wife and daughter, neither of whom he's seen in 16 years. The old town of Fengjie, where Sanming's in-laws lived, is already razed and flooded, and the new town is being demolished and submerged section by section. Sanming knew nothing of the Three Gorges Dam before arriving in Fengjie, although the project was originally the dream of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary who died in 1925. While he waits for his wife, who is away for a month, Sanming finds work dismantling buildings. Jia's other protagonist is a nurse, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), whose husband, Guo Bing (Li Zhubin), is an architect for the dam project. He abandoned her two years ago for another woman and to pursue the career opportunity the dam represents--his lover is also his boss. Shen comes to Fengjie to ask Guo Bing for a divorce.

The search for their respective mates brings the characters into brief encounters with the inhabitants of the 2,000-year-old town. In Sanming's case, they're ordinary people either devastated by what they know is coming, or resigned to it. Most of them, like Huang Mao (Zhou Lin), the young man Sanming becomes so fond of, live by their wits. While Sanming wrangles with uncooperative relatives, and struggles to find his wife in a section of town where everyone has been relocated, Shen finds her husband in one day through a mutual friend who digs for Chinese antiquities. These class differences represent the broadest stroke of Jia's observation of his homeland, but they highlight who pays the price for China's progress and who benefits from it.

The larger issue of spiritual wellbeing among the disenfranchised arises in cleverly written, ostensibly insignificant moments, the most stirring of which is an evening gathering of the demolition crew. As the men share a meal and cigarettes, one of them asks Sanming if he remembers, on his journey to Fengjie, passing through the place where he was born, the Three Gorges. Sanming says he's never heard of it, and the worker pulls out a piece of paper money on which a picture of the gorges has been engraved. Soon, all the workers pull bills from their pockets to share pictures of their birthplaces. The bond here is not China, which these men know only in microcosm, but the lot they share in life--the everyday struggle to find work and to live within their means. For now, the dam provides their livelihood; in the future, it may be the mines.

Frequently, Jia's characters appear in a brief tableau, the cinematic equivalent of a still-life painting, an exploration of form, texture and color. While the writer-director is a master at composition, he never uses these "still-life" shots simply for effect: Instead, they are an occasion for creating iconographic images, like the medium shot of Sanming's friend Missy Ma (Ma Lizhen) leaning over the clapboard terrace of a building he's come to demolish. The shot resembles a Dorothea Lange photo where Ma is China's "Migrant Mother." Sanming himself, a miner before Jia found him nearly a decade ago, short, muscular and resolute, is a Chinese Everyman. His tableau is the crumbling cityscape of Fengjie, and the rocky grave of his young friend. Shen's is the Yangtze in all its majesty.

There is no redemption in Still Life, but there is progress. Jia's protagonists climb out of purgatory to go on with their lives. In the decade to come, while the dam groans to full capacity, Sanming, if he survives, will go on toiling in the mines--but his wife and daughter will be at his side, the dam attached in his mind to the memory of reunion. Shen's recollection of her abandonment will always be connected to the dam, but so will the memory of her newfound freedom--it was at the dam's construction site that she finally confronted her faithless mate. China will undoubtedly submerge the collective memories of displacement with a fresh paper bill, engraved with the image of its new riparian landscape.