THE WORLD (China-Jpn-Fra / 2004)
The bravura opening shot of the film features a young stage dancer walking around in an underground compound while consistently clamoring for a Band Aid, perhaps the most potent metaphor in a film virtually brimming from them. Directed by Jia Zhang-ke, one of the most talented young filmmakers in the world today, The World (Shijie) is set against the backdrop of the "world" itself. To be exact, the setting is Beijings gigantic World Park, which features 106 artificial models of global monuments, including that of the Eiffel Tower, the St. Peter's cathedral, the Twin Towers (still standing), the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal, etc. Various announcements and slogans assure the visitors that they are there to "See the World in Beijing," with World Park more or less serving as a Band Aid. Meanwhile, they also attend fashion shows featuring musical numbers from various cultures, or they can sit inside a replica passenger jet so they can "experience" air travel.
In many ways, The World's setting is its protagonist, and Jia makes full use of it by juxtaposing the dreams and aspirations of his human characters against this monumentally fake "world." The dancer we watched in the opening sequence is Tao (Zhao Tao, Jias favorite leading lady), a migrant from Shanxi province who, like many others, has come to the city for a better future. She's part of the troupe employed to put on these elaborate shows. Her philandering boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), also works at the park as a security guard. The tumultuous relationships shared by various employees basically serve as an insight into the rapidly modernizing Chinese society, which is caught between its communist past and the capitalist present now being imposed upon it. Tao loves Taisheng, but also loves her independence, while Taisheng isnt ready to make any commitments since he constantly eyes new opportunities. On the other hand, Taos good friend (and fellow dancer), Wei (Jing Jue), torments her boyfriend/co-worker by often turning off her cell phone only to blame the batteries later on while refusing to bulge the details of her adventures.
An essay could be written just on the title credits alone. After shuttling from the "pyramids," Jia moves farther away from the Park, allowing it to remain visible in the background. The title then appears, but a homeless man carrying garbage is seen slowly walking across the bottom of the screen, which is followed by the appearance of the URL of the World Park. An ironic contradiction that is Chinese society has never been so vividly portrayed, but Jias wry self-critical aspects are also quite noticeable here as one can easily decipher that he is presenting this film as part of the urbanized and globalized culture. The World also happens to be his first officially approved and thus "over-ground" film, so it's remarkable that this effort happens to contain his most scathing critique yet.
A sense of anxiety and depression is prevalent among various characters but Jia assumes Tao as our guide. Her environment is an illusion, along with her smile, her outfits, her associates, and the core values she used to believe in. Human contact has been replaced by "SMS Text Messaging" (which Jia satirizes with animations), thus feelings arent as important anymore. Tao works at the most expensive place in China but, along with her co-workers, she still lives in a dilapidated one-room shack, a reality for her and others. She eventually befriends an older Russian woman, Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova), who, along with many of her compatriots, has come to this rapidly modernizing country for better opportunities. However, due to languages barriers and a lack of skills, most of them end up selling their only valuable possession.
The World is the best example of DV filmmaking Ive ever seen so far. Aided by his good friend and DP Yu Lik-wai (a talented director in his own right), Jias compositions here have more immediacy to them. His camerawork has also never been so mobile, obviously representing the fast-paced lives of his urban characters, moving about but still trapped within the "frame." Various platforms of the World Park are ardently lit and shot, which makes them at once both inviting and menacing. Whats surprising is that the Chinese film board is apparently very happy with Jias work here, which is certainly ironic but also quite troubling in and of itself. However, it's possible they realize that Jia is aiming at a lot more with this effort.
Jia has certainly gone global. His criticism on this occasion is also targeted at the powers of the world at large, and not just the Chinese authorities of the past and present. After all, arent the dreams and aspirations of his characters captured in a facsimile of environments belonging to someone else? But the stakes are also higher for his characters -- this is not Fenyang or any other remote province, its Beijing; they are not on the threshold of adulthood anymore, they are adults, yet things are more or less the same -- so its not surprising to see that Jia is also more emotional. The fractured narrative of The World mostly consists of vignettes of varying lengths, yet Jia has never before been able to extract such an amalgam of emotions: whether its from the scene between Tao and Anna when Tao realizes what her friend has become, or the situation which arises when Taishengs brother is injured in an industrial accident and gives him a crumpled paper with his last wishes. But for this viewer, nothing compares to Taos gaze late in the film as shes sitting morbidly while Taisheng continues to ask, "Whats Wrong?" Here Jia allows us to feel a wound so deep, which no Band Aid could possibly heal.
*THE WORLD premiered at the 2004 Venice Film Festival (in-competition)
*Available in the U.S. on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.