English Title: The World
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Office Kitano
Director: Jia Zhangke
Screenplay: Jia Zhangke
Cinematographer: Yu Likwai
Art Director: Wu Lizhong
Editor: Kong Jinlei
Runtime: 143 minutes
Tao is a performer in Beijing’s World Park. She is dating a guard named Taisheng and soon forms a close friendship with a Russian who begins working in the park. A visit from an old boyfriend precipitates a hesitancy on Tao’s part over her relationship with Taisheng, who himself begins to spend some time with a woman, a fashion designer named Qun who needs to make a long-distance trip on behalf of her brother. Tao becomes upset when Anna leaves and starts to cling to Taisheng, whose personal problems mount when his cousin, who also works as a guard at World Park, is fired for stealing; and when a close friend is injured in a construction site accident his relationship with Tao is further tested.
World Park, located in Beijing’s large Fengtai district, comprises over 115 acres and encompasses famous sites and landmarks from fourteen different countries, including The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Great Pyramid. It is a curiously postmodern, even contradictory, space: an ostensible tourist attraction yet seemingly aimed at a national audience who could not or would not leave China. Its proud boast of offering the chance to view the world without leaving the capital city – to, in effect, see without seeing and experience without experiencing – has resulted in a much-vaunted gloss and artificiality; and as Jia Zhangke has emphasized when talking about his fourth feature, this fake landscape is a perfect counterpoint to the very real problems and emotions faced by his characters. As he says: ‘More and more I get the feeling that the surreal has become reality in Beijing... relationships (are) both free and restricted, deep and superficial.’
These relationships orbit around the central pairing of Tao, a dancer at World Park (played by Jia’s perennial leading lady Zhao Tao), and a park security guard named Taisheng. Both characters have encounters outside their union, though for various reasons neither achieves fruition, and their at times awkward and forceful declarations to each other at times carry more than a little sense of masking feelings that they cannot process, act upon, or (in Taisheng’s case) deal with. This is then offset by the extremes experienced between two other World Park performers named Wei and Nui, who go from a violent break-up to marriage in all of two scenes, and perfectly exemplify a shallow reconciliation of character and milieu, interior and exterior, that so jars with Tao in particular, and even further with a friend of Taisheng’s who suffers an accident on a nearby construction site.
This contrastive sense is underlined by the style of the film. The long take/long shots methodology familiar from other Jia films here sits beside a sporadic use of vibrant animated episodes that intrude as if from another picture entirely. It is used in conjunction with the text messages sent between different characters (typically Tao and Taisheng), and seems to highlight a gulf between them even as its technological sophistry and communicative import should be bringing them closer together. These scenes offer fantasies of interior worlds, thoughts and emotions, and in their anomalousness they mirror the juxtaposition of the park and the blue-collar milieu glimpsed beyond the confines of the park. Jia’s features and documentaries have both come to revel in contrasting lives and environments, and the ostensible differences between The World and his earlier work (most overtly the setting – this was Jia’s first work not to be set in his home province of Shanxi) only underline this dichotomy.
As the most celebrated and perceived paradigmatic figure of China’s Sixth Generation of film-makers, Jia has become something of an outspoken critic of his country’s modern development, which he has taken to chronicling in minute detail. Indeed, beginning with the 1980s-set autobiographical exegesis of Platform (2000), one could almost trace the changing face of modern China through his canon and its various representations; and The World fits neatly into this project for its emphatic picture of the new capitalist fervor defining China in the twenty-first century. It is a revolution as thorough as its communist progenitors, but in Jia’s eyes it is one that will leave many of its populace behind.
Author of this review: Adam Bingham