April 22, 2005

The World

Directed by Jia Zhangke Starring Zhao Tao

Reviewed by Martin Tsai Since his debut Xiao Wu won the Dragons & Tigers competition at the 1998 Vancouver International Film Festival, Jia Zhangke has quickly established himself as one of China's top filmmakers. Heavily influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Robert Bresson, Jia's work consistently illustrates the communist society's surrender to Western capitalist mores. Banned by Chinese authorities, his underground films offer keen observations on the impact of everything from privatization, unemployment and crime to Taiwanese pop tunes. The World - his latest and first state-sanctioned production - contemplates implications of migration and globalization in China.

Set in a suburban Beijing theme park, the film's symbolic and literal global village flaunts miniature world monuments such as London Bridge, Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe, Torre di Pisa, pyramids and Taj Mahal. Still-intact Twin Towers in the replicated Manhattan skyline suggests behind-the-times displacement of the park and society at large. The disorienting establishment also represents a foreign world that is only illusionary to average Chinese citizens, whose sheltered worldview is strictly within the insular bounds of government-controlled knowledge. In a surreal Vegas-style pastiche, staff performers don various national costumes and do their best interpretations of ethnic caricatures.

Transient opportunists flock to the park, desperately hoping to make ends meet. Showgirl Tao (Zhao Tao) and security guard Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) have both left the impoverished Shanxi province behind, and many of their fellow countrymen soon follow their lead. Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova) comes from Russia so she can earn enough for a trip to see her sister in Ulan Bator, and she befriends Tao despite the fact that they can't converse. Taisheng's adulterous married lover Qun (Wang Yiqun) is waiting on a visa before joining her husband abroad. These characters' plights all mirror China's own struggle to transform itself and adapt to the global economy.

Even though it delves into Jia's usual thematic concerns, the film uncannily echoes Lost in Translation and Chungking Express. The director's ambitious and interwoven expose never ceases to fascinate, but he still hasn't overcome a nagging inability to define and develop characters. Shot by his frequent collaborator Yu Likwai in luminous scope format, The World also recalls La Dolce Vita and Millennium Mambo. Its visual vocabulary eventually becomes redundant, as Jia keeps revisiting the Eiffel Tower motif long past its novelty. Yet he astonishingly digresses from his thesis, and the haunting finale doesn't resonate with the film's immense premise.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.