Jia Zhangke | 2hr 23min
Despite scepticism that cooperating with the Chinese Film Bureau would compromise his creative processes and incisive cultural commentary, Jia Zhangke remains as sharp as ever in his fourth feature film, The World. With greater recognition comes greater funding, and this evidently reveals itself in his masterful choice of shooting location – Beijing World Park, a theme park which showcases miniature replicas of famous international landmarks. Though this imagery it isn’t quite as whimsical as that which would appear later in his career, there is a beautiful surrealism to the use of such diverse, recognisable architecture. With a single pan Jia shifts from a view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to the Parthenon, to Rome’s Mouth of Truth, these clean, pristine edifices existing in stark contrast to the dirtied interiors where the onsite staff live and interact with each other.
At this point in his career, Jia is fully embracing the Michelangelo Antonioni influence in his framing of lonely, wandering souls against such visually impressive architecture. If his previous film, Unknown Pleasures, felt like a sequential extension of Platform, then he only pushes that notion further here in The World, where he examines the new Chinese society born out of the 1980s era of economic reform and opening up to foreign investments. The results are plain to see – western and Chinese identities have meshed into a globalised amalgamation of cultural influences, and both are cheapened in the process. “The Twin Towers were bombed on September 11. We still have them,” boasts one park worker overlooking a replica of the Manhattan cityscape, simultaneously brushing over this integral part of New York’s history while taking ownership of its untarnished aesthetic.
Rather than building themselves up through their own ambitious creations, this corner of modern China has shrunk the rest of the world down to its level, and the effect is twofold. On one hand these people look like giants roaming around a park where everything they could want to see is condensed into a single place; on the other, they look pitifully small, opting for cheap imitations devoid of the artistic craft and culture attached to the original monuments. China certainly has its own historical landmarks to be proud of, but the nation that Jia is reflecting in The World has grown uninspired with time, trying to own everything and yet ending up with nothing.
Outside these imitations of architectural achievements, there is dedication on Jia’s behalf to the even the most ordinary infrastructure of Beijing’s Fengtai District. Much like Antonioni, his concrete and metallic divisions in the mise-en-scène are layered all through the foreground and background, separating our disaffected heroine, Tao, from those around her. Her boyfriend’s push for them to have sex drives them further apart, her one real friend speaks an entirely different language, and when she tries to make conversation with Chen, a new worker, their hopeful connection persists at odds with their harsh surroundings, adjacent to a construction site. Tall, concrete blocks with metallic spokes line up neatly in rows across an open plain of cement, and though the practical function of these formations is unclear, the emotional impact is alienating as they visually split this interaction right down the middle. As the two converse, a plane flies overhead, and Tao wistfully recognises that she doesn’t know anyone who has travelled by air.
Perhaps that is why she is so drawn to the Eiffel Tower replica which stands tall over the rest of the park, even while being a mere third the size of the real one. Jia recognises the power of its imagery, using the same stunning landscape shot of the monument overlooking a small lake as a formal motif to mark the passage of time, but Tao’s attraction to it has more to do with her own dissatisfaction with being grounded. Each time she returns to the site we watch her ride up the elevator, gazing out at the highest views she ever expects to see in her life.
Bit by bit over his career, Jia has been stepping further outside the realm of pure neorealism by introducing artificial elements to his narratives, and he pulls it off here with mixed results. The animated interludes simply don’t gel aesthetically with everything around them, lacking the beauty, meaning, and finesse with which Jia frames so many of his live-action images. Where it works much better is in the surreal, haunting ending in which two characters do finally find a melancholy connection with each other, their final words asserting in a dreamlike voiceover that “This is just the beginning.” Tao, like so many others, has been told to be satisfied with the shrunken husk of a world she has been handed, but her discovery of something which transcends the worldly structures and barriers of modern-day China makes for an especially stirring payoff to her discontent, restless wandering.
The World is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.