The Eiffel Tower looks out over the Arc de Triomphe, which is not so very far from the Taj Mahal, which is itself just a short monorail ride away from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which are still standing. Welcome to China’s World Park, where, as a perky female voice intones over a loudspeaker, you can “see the world without ever leaving Beijing.” A kitsch spectacle cloned from the DNA of two capitalist oases — Disneyland and the Las Vegas strip — World Park is a real tourist destination, occupying more than 100 acres of Beijing’s Fengtai district. It is also the setting for The World, the comic, tragic and monumentally beautiful new film by writer-director Jia Zhangke (Platform) — and his first to be made with the blessing of the Chinese government. In going straight, however, Jia hasn’t dulled his subversive fervor; if anything, he’s ratcheted it up. He’s made a movie that is like an encrypted message, sailing past the authorities undetected only to be deciphered by the public on the other end. Not that you need X-ray glasses to see what Jia is up to. Right from the movie’s opening scene, in which dancer Tao (the lovely and amazing Zhao Tao) stops to ask some card-playing security guards “Who’s losing?” and they respond “We all are,” The World establishes itself as its maker’s bleakest status report yet from the front lines of contemporary Chinese society.
To read an interview with The World's director, Jia Zhangke,
Like so many Jia characters before them, Tao and her co-workers are young people in their 20s who hail from rural provinces (like Jia’s own hometown of Shanxi) that have remained trapped in a kind of time warp as China has rapidly modernized its urban centers. They are, to paraphrase Godard, the children of Deng Xiaoping and Coca-Cola, and Jia’s earlier films were about how they felt boxed in by their surroundings while longing (as one film’s title suggests) for the unknown pleasures of city life. But in The World, those who’ve made it to the city find happiness no nearer at hand. So it may be that Jia’s next logical move is to follow his Shanxi émigrés as they strike out for Europe or, perhaps, America. Of course, such things are easier said than done, and while people are constantly coming and going in The World — a backpacking ex-boyfriend passing through en route to Mongolia; a troupe of performers newly arrived from Russia — the movie’s central characters remain as inert as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. (“I don’t know anyone who’s ever been on a plane,” Tao remarks wistfully in one scene as a jetliner streaks overhead.) On one of its many levels, The World is about how apt we are to settle for the safety of familiar objects, to choose elaborate simulacra over actual experience.
You don’t have to be Chinese to understand that, but watching Jia’s film, you also never sense that he’s setting you up for some homily about how it’s a small world after all. He’s merely responding (with one of the most highly developed filmmaking styles on the planet) to what he sees around him — a global society where the achievements of nations are valued above the welfare of individuals and where technology and “progress” threaten to displace personal interactions. To wit, Jia’s characters are more likely to communicate with one another by cell phone text message rather than actual conversation, while their innermost longings are reserved for animated dreamscapes that only we in the audience can see. Working yet again with the brilliant cinematographer Yu Likwai (in widescreen, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-film digital video), Jia has made The World his most visually arresting film to date, taking full advantage of his setting’s absurd contours to pan us from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to London Bridge in one fell swoop. (And there are Bollywood-style musical numbers to boot.) Yet Jia’s most extraordinary mapping isn’t of an external landscape, but an emotional one. Without ever leaving Beijing, he shows us an entire universe of human joy, frailty and sorrow.
THE WORLD | Written and directed by JIA ZHANGKE | Produced by TAKIO YOSHIDA,
SHOZO ICHIYAMA and REN ZHONGLUN | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At Laemmle Fairfax,
Landmark Westside Pavilion and Laemmle One Colorado