From the 42nd New York Film Festival: The World
The ever-increasing sprawl of modern China is Jia Zhangke’s concern in The World, his first film officially approved by the Chinese government. False-IDs, confiscated passports, estranged family, unfaithful lovers, and unsatisfied dreams are the stuff of the world, where Chinese youth are surrounded by the realization of globalization but without the means or understanding to come to terms with the possibilities and drawbacks of global freedom. The film is named after its central location, the World Park theme park in Beijing, which allows visitors to walk around scaled recreations of famous world landmarks-Manhattan, St. Paul’s cathedral, the Egyptian pyramids, and an Eiffel tower a third the size of the original standing out in the Beijing skyline. Exhibiting scantly clad women dressed in rotating national costumes and guarded by a cadre of male provincial immigrants, the park allows one to “See the World Without Ever Having To Leave Beijing.”
Gone is the urban malaise of the teenagers in Jia’s masterfulUnknown Pleasures
, his characters are now in their 20s and facing the reality of career aspirations-the emphasis on human beings as upgradeable commodities. The characters wander around the World Park unhappy with where they are in life; most are from the provinces and moved to Beijing to realize grander dreams, only to find the people of Beijing obsessed with the possibilities of the world out there. In lieu of the ability to travel, the city has built a representation of global landmarks, but for Taisheng (Taisheng Cheng) and his girlfriend Tao (Tao Z
hao) the park does nothing to squash their urban restlessness. Taisheng, a guard at the park, is a sad portrait of Chinese young adults. Guiding provincial family and friends into the metropolis only to have them come up disappointed with life’s results, Taisheng pushes Tao to sleep with him as an expression of love. Taisheng’s focus on Tao as a physical object aligns him with the capitalistic impulses that are heavily criticized by the film, where the company payment over a worker’s death carries more weight than the death itself, and a man’s last will is merely a list of his outstanding debts. Unsatisfied with the results of his aspirations in Beijing, Taisheng has gravitated to the Park as it represents his abstract hopes of being successful and happy somewhere else; what doesn’t work at home must work somewhere else in the world.
Tao, though a dancer/model for the World Park and thus an intrinsic part of China’s capitalization, is the hope of The World. She tries wholeheartedly to bond with a Russian dancer despite their inability to communicate with each other, and though their relationship later is corrupted in a way that seems to evoke Soviet and PRC relations, Tao’s desire to connect is a glimmer of hope on the Chinese urban-scape. Likewise, she is the only character who is content with staying in Beijing. She remarks to Taisheng that all she has is he, and if he cheats on her she will kill him. Her dedication to forming a permanent relationship and life in Beijing, without any pretenses or desire to travel or move or engage in capitalistic opportunities (man she is offered a chance to sell herself to a business man) makes her the most pure and hopeful of the young Chinese adults in The World. She, more than anyone else, seems abstractly aware of the changes in the landscape of China, as the country more and more entwines itself with the rest of the world and reveals to its population the existence of an “out there” which currently represents a near impossible dream. Tao’s awareness is blessed in the film, which is mordant with its splintered friendships, discontented adults, and an urban population that seems bewildered at what to do in this new world emerging between the rhetoric of the state and the represented idealizations of the West.
The idealized landmarks at the park are a wickedly clever find for Jia, who exploits them to their metaphoric max (apparently none of the Park’s creators have read Beaudrillard). The false dreams the park represents attracts expatriates and provincial hopefuls who nevertheless find the place unfulfilling. In lieu of monetary success, many attempt at human connections, and in the film’s most humorous moments Jia skewers a culture beset with cell phones, which let people keep track of one another to an unprecedented degree. The young adults of The World flit around in false-freedom, and keep their phones off in a vain attempt to be untracked and uncontrolled. Paradoxically, Tao sees the cell phone as romantic, for whenever she is text messaged the film slips into cheap Flash animations depicting the freedom of travel and the possibilities represented in communication over distances. Human connections can arrive when least expected. That the despondent adults turns off their phones to try to be free but Tao eagerly receives communication is part of The World textured and complicated engagement of modernism in urban Chinese life.
Perhaps it is in the association of the Park with media representation that it becomes so important to The World’s failure to congeal its vital socio-political discourse with a working narrative into a sharp, well-defined work. A visitor remarks at how similar the recreated Eiffel Tower is to the original, but when asked he remarks he’s never been to Paris. Tao and Taisheng take a “magic carpet ride” over the world through a cheesy video blue screen exhibit at the park. The power of images as burdens of representation for a distant culture extends from the Park to the cinema, where in a deep irony Jia’s film is quasi self-condemned. Though The World is an important film for its strong willed socio-political content, its power to claim its representation of modern China as an accurate one is hobbled by the idea of the World Park. In the same way a visitor will look at a landmark in the park and make an assumption about what it means as a representation for its parent nation, one will similarly look at The World and make intrinsically flawed judgments about the state of China.
The problem of this intriguing self-criticism is that The World is seemingly at its most powerful when it is moving heavy metaphors around (no metaphor in film history could be more visually immense, physically heavy-handed, or amazingly unexpected as the very existence of the World Park) rather then when it is exploring the minuscule and barely narrated human drama swamped by space of Jia’s ambitious mise-en-scene. But with the criticism of these broad cultural representations Jia in fact emphasizes the smallness-in importance and in aspirations-of his pathetic, emotionally disinclined waifs of characters. In this way, even the little pieces of their lives-the petty relationship fights; the free feeling of traveling even if it is a predictable ride-in retrospect assume a delicate, basic importance which is speaking just for humans rather than “for China.” The subtle emphasis of the people who wander in front of these gigantic monuments rather than on the monuments itself is what gives The World a soul. What it does not give it is a total as cohesive, or coherent as it needs to be to effectively deploy its vital ideas.