After three unsanctioned productions steeped in regional detail, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke goes at once above ground and global. Set in the 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. Set in Beijing World Park, a themed expanse in the suburbs that features scale replicas of some 100 tourist attractions from five continents, Jia’s fourth feature emphasizes—even more than the Shanxi trilogy—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 makes painfully clear the finite options available to provincials flooding into Chinese cities. Illegal or otherwise unsavory activity seems the quickest shortcut to advancement. 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 The World.
Befitting Jia’s first authorized production, the movie is a lavish exercise in pageantry—though only the most myo
pic World Park official could mistake this for a positive representation. 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.