Review of Still Life

Contributed by Luke Phang

Still Life
A film by Lee Pei-Yu

On paper, Still Life describes itself as a documentary that aims to capture the life from the perspective of Lee and her family after the untimely passing of her sister, who was most likely still in her 20s. It is not an elaborately made documentary with high production value, merely relying on a single camera to shoot.

It is a very simple production that combines snapshots from the director’s view, mixed occasionally with her narration, impromptu interviews with her family members and video clips of her family’s daily life. There is no strong underlying narrative as the director lets the story unfold with the passage of time. She explores the topic of death, a subject that is not openly discussed in Asian culture.

I find it hard to describe the documentary because I felt that the director was not trying to drive across a message through the making of the film, but rather styled it in a way where the main focus is the unrelenting passage of time and how her family coped and moved on after her sister’s death.

Still Life screen shot 1 - Xiao Wan
Little Wan, the filmmaker’s deceased sister’s cat

There was not much mention of the circumstances of the death or the moments leading up to it or even the mention of her sister. Instead, the film largely centred around the legacy that her sister left behind, which included a cat, and how her family – her dad, her mum, her sister and even herself – continued to live on after this sudden change of having a family member taken away.

The video spans across years, which I felt was the documentary’s strongest selling point, as it captured and preserved many highlights of the Lee family. The viewer is able to look at all the defining moments over the years and reflect on how these moments shaped and moulded the family. It reminded me of the film Boyhood, which was shot across the span of two years.

Watching the parents of Lee age, the passing of the family’s pets, the passing of her grandmother and the growing up of her nephew, the documentary serves to record each specific moment adding to each other and affecting the grand scheme of things. It made me reflect on my own life, all these moments leading up to where I am currently and made me question the way I would view my life if I am able to observe myself on screen.

I think this is one of the beauty of Still Life. Despite its simplicity, the film brings with it a high degree of relatability. We can imagine ourselves in Lee’s story, behaving just like the family members – living in the present and not worrying too much about the future.

Still Life screen shot 2 - The Lee family having cake
The Lee family having cake

While centred around death, there are moments in the documentary where we catch glimpses of hope. Most of the light-hearted moments are associated with Lee’s nephew. The film shows Lee’s sister breaking the news of her pregnancy to her family and the process of her nephew growing up, illustrating how life continues anew even with the departure of the people we love. This continuation of life gives people a reason to soldier on.

Still Life is not award-winning material. However, it gives a refreshing look into how one family deals with death on a day to day basis and paints an interesting picture of the way humans handle grief. It reminds us of how complex life is and is a very humbling experience to remember that our moment on this earth is just but a blink in the grand scheme of things. And it is up to us to make the most of it.

The film is Lee’s way of coping with her sister’s passing and made in memory of her sister. At the end, the audience gets a sense of definite closure for the family. I would recommend Still Life if you enjoy a slower pacing film.



Luke is a movie lover who doesn’t mind visiting the theatre alone. He thinks that the superhero genre is diluting the originality of movies but can’t help getting hyped over Infinity Wars himself.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

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