The World

I'm glad I didn't give up on Jia Zhangke. Several months ago, I reviewed his 2000 film Platform, which was so difficult to watch that I ended up skipping the screening of his most recent film, The World, filmed in 2004. Lucky for me, The World came back to Seattle for a one-week only run this week, and even luckier for me, I was able to work it into my schedule to catch it. The World is the kind of film Jia Zhangke should have been making all along, had he had the freedom to do so.

The Chinese director's first three films were made when he was an "underground" director; he was filming without the sanction of the Chinese government, he had to film quickly, and he never knew, when he was filming shots in public locations, if he would be shut down. His previous three films, Xiao Wu (1998), Platform, and Unknown Pleasures (2002) were all banned in China. Jia was part of a group of young filmmakers fighting for greater freedom in filmmaking, and the government finally announced new policies that loosened the chokehold a bit, allowing Jia to film his first "mainstream" Chinese film.

The World is also Jia's first foray into examining life in a big city, where people from many place come to work and live; his previous films were all about his hometown in Shaanxi. The World was filmed mostly in an actual Beijing amusement park called "The World", and the film is about the relationships and community among the dancers and security guards who both work at and live within the confines of this park, which boasts, "You can see the world without ever leaving Beijing!"

The story centers on Tao (Zhao Tao, Platform), a dancer at the park, and her boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Taishen), a security guard. Tao spends her days and nights endlessly going from one end of the park to the other on the park's monorail system, dancing various cultural dances in the park's shows. When Tao's ex-boyfriend shows up one day, Taisheng shows up at the restaurant the two are talking at, and politely offers him a ride to the train station so he can leave.

Taisheng loves Tao, and works hard to better his life to be worthy of her, but he is convinced she doesn't love him enough because she won't have sex with him. When he accuses her of being a virgin, she lashes out in anger and leaves; we don't understand why that accusation set Tao off so much, though, until later in the film.

Another couple in the film, Tao's friend and roommate Wei (Jing Jue) and her boyfriend Niu (Jiang Zhongwei) have their own problems centering on Niu's jealousy and possessiveness; every time Wei comes in, Niu grills her about where she's been, who she's been with, and why her cell phone wasn't on. He never blows up at her, but he questions her with this creepy air of calmness that has you waiting anxiously for him to explode at her.

Cell phones are a recurrent theme in The World. These people live and work within the microcosm of this amusement park tucked away in the heart of this enormous city, and their cell phones ring constantly; either they're talking on the phone or they're getting text messages. It's as if they (and we?) have this constant need to stay connected to each other, to establish the connections that are the basis of community. This group of performers and security guards has their own little world within the confines of the bizarre amusement park they call both work and home.

Another thing Jia does very well in The World is show the realities of a big city: the surface glitters and shines, and signs of encroaching capitalism in the Chinese capitol are everywhere, from the ubiquitous cell phones to the table umbrellas with McDonalds logos (complete with the catchphrase "I'm lovin' it" in both English and Chinese), but if you look closer you see the squalor and ugliness of millions of people living in close quarters, in a city that's not completely modern in every respect yet.

The dancers and security guards live in quarters so close that a Western viewer is likely to get claustrophobic just looking at them. They wash their clothes in public sinks, toting hot water in giant thermoses, because there's no hot tap water. Bottled water is a commodity - the park's bottled water dispensers are maintained by a troop of security guards toting the bottles around the park. There are implications of other forms of a societal dark side - illegal gambling, fake visas, and prostitution - lurking beneath the surface of the glittery world the dancers and guards work in as well.

All the things that happen when people live together in close community - love affairs, jealousy, betrayal, tragedy and revenge - take place within the just over 2 hours of The World, as the characters travel in endless circles aboard the monorail and sit in the fake airplane that never goes anywhere, speculating on where the real airplanes go and whether anyone is ever really on them.

These are people who live a remarkably confined life - they are trapped in their little corner of the universe, and the only escape, it seems, is death. The park itself is the perfect setting for the film; with many of the world's major landmarks (at about 1/3 size) all in one place, and cultural dances representing the corners of the world, the park gives the visitors who come there the illusion they are seeing something different than their ordinary lives. An eerily calm and cheery female voice greets the visitors everywhere in the park with "Welcome, dear visitors" and provides a running commentary on what tourists are seeing.

Jia noted in an interview in 2004 that this film is about Chinese people's perception and understanding of the world around them, and how the people in the film form community within the confined environment of the park. The park itself is this bizarre artificial environment designed to make people who will never see the rest of the world feel as though they've been to these famous places, and Jia notes in the same interview that going to The World parks in Beijing and Shenzhen, and seeing how excited the tourists are to be there, made him feel sad. He sees the park as a reflection of the Chinese place in a mass media culture, and the issues unique to Chinese people within an increasingly globalized society.

The World is a visually beautiful film, and it's not inconsequential that being officially "approved" by the government gave Jia more time and freedom to film the way he wanted, rather than having to shoot on the run. There are also these great animation sequences that take you into the character's heads and how they are feeling in response to certain situations that also work very effectively.

Compared to Platform, The World also has a much better flow and tighter storyline, quite possibly because Jia thought about the film for four years and spent a full year on the screenplay. The polish shows, and The World, far more than Platform, truly showcases Jia's unique talents and potential as a director. I don't know what Jia is working on next (he says his friends jokingly ask if his next film will be called The Universe), but after The World, you can bet I'll be going to see the next film from this director.