After three unsanctioned productions steeped in regional detail—each one a masterpiece—Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke goes at once aboveground and global. Set in the 35-year-old director’s native province of Shanxi, Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and Unknown Pleasures (2002) gravitate to the young and the powerless, stricken and paralyzed even as the world around them convulses at warp speed. The films outline the contours of the spiritual vacuum created by the double whammy of the Cultural Revolution and the Deng-era blind lunge toward free markets. They abound in ethnographic specifics but their hapless dreamers embody a universal sentiment: We’ve got to get out of this place.
The World appears to grant that wish. “I’m going to India,” announces Tao (Jia’s regular star Zhao Tao) early on—and the scenic route even affords a view of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Welcome to Beijing World Park, a themed expanse in the suburbs that features scale replicas of some 100 tourist attractions from five continents. With mock-infomercial solemnity,
The World flashes the park’s slogan on the screen: “See the world without ever leaving Beijing.” Anyone who has seen a Jia film will realize this is less a promise than a threat.
Jia’s fourth feature has been greeted as his statement on globalization—but which of his movies isn’t? The director, whose formative years coincided with an influx of previously banned artworks, has a complex take on how globalization affects the kid on the street—
particularly in terms of imported popular culture and technology. Jia’s characters embrace karaoke and break dancing, consume Taiwanese pop and bootleg DVDs, cling to favorite songs like life-saving talismans. But even more than the Shanxi trilogy, The World emphasizes that the illusion of interconnectedness does not equal (or even enable) the experience of mobility. The movie demolishes the go-go globalizer’s obnoxious equation of free trade with freedom. The World may be flat; the world is decidedly not.
Befitting Jia’s first authorized production, the movie is a lavish exercise in pageantry—though only the most myopic World Park official could mistake this for a positive representation. (Jia’s version of the site fluidly combines Beijing’s real, 12-year-old one and the similar Window of the World in Hong Kong–adjacent Shenzhen.) No less than Westworld, Jia’s theme park offers no way out—a hermetic zone of zombified ritual and Muzak Beethoven, encircled by a snaking monorail and eerily deserted highways. Big Ben abuts Lower Manhattan and the still-standing World Trade Center; the Eiffel Tower looms over the Taj Mahal. The sense of the ersatz is seamless, even if the counterfeits aren’t convincing. In Jia’s formulation, the World Park—with its furious
proliferation of imitations and visceral absence of context—is alienating in much the same way as modern-day China.
Tao, a member of the World Park performing troupe, and her boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard, are Shanxi transplants, and The World makes painfully clear the finite options available to provincials flooding into Chinese cities.
Tao and Taisheng are trapped in a taunting virtual environment, but they’re lucky compared to his peasant friends, who are consigned to hazardous construction work. Illegal or otherwise unsavory activity seems the quickest shortcut to advancement. Like the title character in
Xiao Wu, Tao is dimly aware of what it would take to better her lot, but can’t bring herself to carry out the soul-crushing transactions.
Instead, she harbors wistful fantasies of flight—most poignantly, in a sequence that envisions a plastic rain sheet as an enchanted cape. They may traverse “continents,” but Tao and her fellow employees are effectively grounded—the Russian guest workers are required to surrender their passports. (One unforgettable image, a plane taking off over a field of concrete columns, stresses just how earthbound these people are.) Tao dresses up in garishly exotic saris and kimonos for nightly stage spectacles, but song and dance, traditionally an escape hatch for Jia’s characters, loses its magic when all of life is a show.
Just as a ringing pager brings about Xiao Wu’s final humiliation, an ill-timed text message precipitates The Worl d‘s lurch toward tragic melodrama. On a first viewing, the movie seemed a dilution of the formal strategies Jia had perfected—at once less dispassionate and less empathetic. After a repeat viewing, it still strikes me as Jia’s fourth-best film (that it’s one of the year’s best says plenty about the level at which he’s working), but it’s more apparent that The Worl d‘s muffled emotional impact should be understood as a function of its setting. Tao and Taisheng are typical Jia lovers, playing romance as a desultory game of defense, but the oppressive backdrop diminishes their squabbles and infects their inner lives with a deadening blankness.
With its ready-made metaphors, precise and quietly flashy long-take cinematography (by the estimable Yu Lik-wai), a seductively trancey score by Lim Giong (the first use of non-diegetic music in the Jia oeuvre), and flurries of whimsical animated punctuation, The World is the director’s most accessible film. But it’s also his most despairing—a harsh riposte to the first three. Jia’s characters are forever looking to escape their isolation (a key location in Unknown Pleasures is the half-built highway that will link the depressed mining town of Datong to Beijing). The cruel revelation here is that what awaits out in the world is nothing better—or more real—than what’s in