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Global vision
Jia Zhangke’s The World

The World is so much more intelligent and exciting than it could have been. In choosing to make a film about people who work at the World Park — a theme park outside Beijing that boasts simulacra of such landmarks as the Lower Manhattan skyline, the Eiffel Tower, and the Great Pyramid of Egypt — director Jia Zhangke runs some risks. Since the World Park comments on itself by its mere existence, further commentary is threatened with redundancy. Also, the dominant commercial cinema has been so glib in trading in the postmodernism of placelessness, from Blade Runner to Baz Luhrmann to Batman Returns, that for an art filmmaker outside the Hollywood orbit to enter this market is to risk impotent cuteness.

Three options are immediately obvious, all equally banal. You could celebrate, in the smirking Broadway-for-the-multiplex manner of Chicago or Moulin Rouge, the glitzy surfaces of the simulated world while mocking the suckers whom these surfaces deceive. You could appeal to a despairing humanism by showing individual lives crushed under the heel of globalization. Or you could appease a more sentimental humanism by showing how in spite of everything, people adapt, muddle through, and make the globalized world their home.

The World does all three, but in reverse. The film doesn’t neutralize (how could it?) a smug, derisive response to the falseness of the theme park and to the modest pride its workers take in being close to the world’s monuments. But Jia’s visual design is a deterrent to easy ironizing. He photographs the simulacra as part of the distant background, as seen from the trains that shuttle his characters around or behind their backs as they talk to each other on half-deserted platforms. It’s a world that’s close but far, real but empty, stable but uncomfortable. Jia provides a long-shot view of individuals placed in, and against, the vast spaces of history — the same view (now expanded by CinemaScope) with which he built a previous masterpiece, 2000’s Platform.

Like the protagonists of that film and of its excellent follow-up, 2002’s Unknown Pleasures, some of the main characters of The World are performers. Jia’s view of these people is close to that of Max Ophuls in Lola Montes or Douglas Sirk in Imitation of Life: they’re trapped rather than liberated by the stage machines to which they lend their bodies but not their souls. They’re glorified service personnel in kitschy uniforms, not expressive artists. Yet it’s through performance — specifically the gift of a song — that two characters of The World communicate with each other: Tao (Zhao Tao), a young dancer from Northern China, and Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), a Russian dancer for whom employment at the theme park turns out to be a stop on the way to prostitution. In the song of Ulan Bator that Anna teaches Tao, The World finds the possibility of an authentic culture. The cell-phone text messages through which the characters keep in touch point to a similar possibility, and Jia privileges the world-apart nature of these communications by accompanying them with short animations. Yet he also sees the cell phone as a surveillance device, in the subplot about a jealous man who gets enraged when he can’t keep tabs on his dancer girlfriend.

Confronting globalization and the technologies of instantaneity, The World creates an experience that’s epic and unresolved, in which there’s wholeness but no contrived balance or symmetry, and in which, behind the characters’ personal struggles, distances of time, space, and scale loom, neither affirming nor annihilating, as challenges and reference points. It’s a region of experience for which Asian cinema has long had a special affinity, and with Platform, Unknown Pleasures, and now The World, Jia has established himself as one of this area’s most creative explorers.

Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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