Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The World (2004)

The World (2004) *** ½
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke.
Starring: Tao Zhao (Tao), Taisheng Chen (Taisheng), Jue Jing (Wei), Zhong-wei Jiang (Niu), Yiqun Huang (Qun), Hongwei Wang (Sanlai), Jing Dong Liang (Tao's ex-boyfriend), Shuai Ji (Erxiao), Wan Xiang (Youyou), Alla Shcherbakova (Anna), Sanming Han (Sanming), Juan Iu (Yanqing).

It takes courage to call a film The World, as the title implies a certain all encompassing, epic scope that few, if any films, could possibly live up to. But in the case of Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film, the title is appropriate. It is a film about an amusement park in China called The World, but it also looks at where the world is at this stage in its economic development. Jia has always been a filmmaker who has examined China’s continuing economic and political reinvention – from communism to capitalism – and both the positive and negative things that it entails. In The World, he even reaches slightly beyond China’s borders.

The World is perhaps the saddest amusement park I have ever seen in a film. It’s whole purpose is to recreate all the planet’s landmarks, at a reduced scale, all in one spot. As a voice over the loud speaker tells visitors – “You can visit the entire world without leaving Beijing!”, as if that is a good thing. Tour guides show visitors their Eiffel Tower, and one even brags that while September 11th got rid of the real Twin Towers, the park still has theirs for all to see.

The people who work at the park at sad, lonely people. They didn’t really see this as their future under the new capitalist regime in China. Their jobs are thuddingly dull and boring – and worse rather pointless. The visitors to the park, who are not shown in great detail, don’t seem to be getting much joy out of their visit – and the same is definitely true for the people who work there. When an ex-boyfriend shows up to visit Tao (Jia regular Tao Zhao) on his way to starting a new job elsewhere, she is embarrassed by her surroundings – and more embarrassed by her brash boyfriend, who seems to take pleasure in the fact that he owns a car, so he can drive her ex-boyfriend to the train station. She is so embarrassed, that she ends up insisting they leave when her ex goes to buy snacks for his journey – but that’s okay, because you get the feeling that the ex just wanted an excuse to leave as well, and was probably not coming back.

The World resembles Jia’s earlier films – Platform and Unknown Pleasures (the former has already been reviewed in this series, the later will be posted at some point in the near future) – in the portrait is paints of a people living a life in transition. As with the characters in those films, these people are “free” to do what they want – work as they choose, which is an advantage that their ancestors did not have. But now, they are living a life without purpose – without fulfillment – working at a dead end job that has no future. Yet, China has become an economic powerhouse – so much so that people are no longer leaving to work elsewhere, but they are actually bringing in people from other countries to fill jobs in China. We meet a group of Russian women, who come to the park to be dancers. They are told by their “handler” to hand over their passports. It is easier this way, he tells them, because now you won’t lose them. After a few shorts weeks at the park, the one Russian woman we’ve come to now – Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), confesses in broken Mandarin to Tao, her only friend, that she is going to leave to start a new job. The next time we see Anna, it’s at a nightclub – where it becomes clear that she is working as a prostitute, and when Tao sees her, she is so ashamed, she breaks down in tears.

To me, The World like Jia’s previous film Unknown Pleasures (2002) is a transition film between Zia’s two masterpieces – Platform (2000) and Still Life (2006). After Platform, which made Jia one of the most important directors in China, he didn’t quite seem to know what to do next. As good as Unknown Pleasures and The World are – and they are both very good – they do seem a little like Jia is treading water, figuring out where to go to next. The World is the better film – more ambitious in scope, including more characters, and introducing us to characters from outside China, whose economic reality is even worse than those inside the country. Jia even tries his hand at animation, with a few sequences thrown in, and while they look wonderful, they do feel at least slightly out of place. With Still Life, he moved beyond these films, into a quietly moving and profound movie. Here, Jia, while he has made an excellent film, is searching for a way out of the corner he painted himself into by making a masterpiece like Platform. That he found his way out is cause for celebration. That he made a film as good as The World, while trying to do so is remarkable.

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