Thursday, June 4, 2020

Review - The World

June 4, 2020

The World – China, 2005

It is interesting to note just how important and empowering leaving the familiar is in American films regardless of whether the familiar is a particular part of a country, a local hangout spot for a group of friends soon parting for university, or a physical building in which someone spent much or all of his childhood. In most of these films, the act of leaving is the birth of adulthood and the start of a significant adventure, and by the end of the film, more times than not the protagonist, having risen to the occasion and stared down adversity, stands victorious. In a way, the familiar has to be left for the mature adult to reach his potential.

This is not so in many films from Asia. In that part of the world, leaving home is often the start of a tragedy. After all, the city is cruel and lonely; capitalism has turned formerly decent people into money-hungry corner-cutters; and young women are often left to fend for themselves in a world looking to exploit them and throw them away. Rarely do people leave home because they are seeking the greener pastures of independence and adventure. Instead, the catalyst is often poverty or academic failure, and while most American protagonists find solace and true love in the arms of someone they meet along the way, love can be extremely disappointing in Asian films, promising much but leaving most people’s hopes utterly unfulfilled.

Jia Zhangke’s The World is such a film, and as such, some of the scenarios it depicts will hardly seem revolutionary. What separates it from the pack is its setting – World Park in present-day Beijing. The park is advertised as a way of seeing the world without actually leaving Beijing, and its replicated structures include Egyptian pyramids, downtown Manhattan (including the Twin Towers), the Eiffel Tower (which curiously plays “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”), and the Taj Mahal, each significantly smaller than the original. No matter. Throughout the film we see plenty of customers - arms extended, a look of feigned fear on their faces - next the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” taking early versions of selfies. In other words, the park is Las Vegas meets Disneyland.

As the film progresses, we meet the park’s employees, all of whom seem to have left home to find economic prosperity in the big city. Most of them are employees of the park; some of them find work in the budding construction industry; a few supplement their income through illegal activity, while one in particular turns to cards in the hopes of improving his fortunes. The film focuses mostly on a performer named Tao (played exceptionally well by Zhangke-regular Zhao Tao) and her security guard boyfriend, Taisheng (Taisheng Cheng). Tao is a dancer at the park, and at work she carries herself with confidence and assurance. Taisheng has achieved an advanced position and quite enjoys the responsibility and prestige that comes along with it.

Early in the film, Tao’s ex-boyfriend makes an unexpected appearance. He is in Beijing to catch a plane to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Batur, a place that curiously has its own exhibit at World Park. The meeting is awkward, to put it mildly. At a restaurant, the two of them mostly sit in silence, and Taisheng’s sudden appearance only makes it worse, for one of the first things he enquires is how quickly the ex’s plane departs. He even drives him to the airport. Later, at a somewhat dingy hotel, a suddenly jealous Taisheng gently grills Tao about her feelings toward him. When she says she loves him, he asks her to “prove” it. It is all downhill from there.

Interspersed into their collapsing romance are several other moving side stories involving, for example, a childhood friend whom Taisheng helps find employment, the owner of a fashion sweatshop that produces knock-offs on demand, an employee with a gambling problem, and a relationship between a female entertainer and her increasingly unhinged boyfriend. There’s also the touching friendship that forms between Tao and a Russian employee of the park named Anna. Each story is a part of the film’s overall presentation of life in the big city for migrant workers, and unlike its American counterparts, few of these characters get to walk off into the sunset having found both love and stability before the fade out to the closing credits.

And in not doing so, the characters reveal the broken promise of the very place that employs them. The park is, of course, selling a lie. Its customers do not really see the world; eventually their photos will look as awkward to them as the one of Truman standing with his family in front of a rather minuscule version of Mount Rushmore does in The Truman Show, and taking the park’s sky train to India or Africa will soon only remind them of their inability to go to the real thing. For example, the only airplane most of the characters have been on is the one on display at the park, and that reality eats away at them, amplifying feelings of insecurity and jealousy. It makes it vital that something in their life work out, and in the absence of the means to change their financial fortunes, their hopes are placed on either love or luck.

There have been complaints that The World is too slow and unfocused, and there is some truth to this; at 139 minutes, the film has its fair share of slow moments and a few unnecessary characters. I also failed to see the point of the film’s brief, but recurring moments of animation. However, taken together, the stories contained in the film create a powerful impression of life’s fragility and of how fleeting bliss can be, even in a land as surreal and magical as World Park. And there is a cautionary tale about what can be lost in the rush toward capitalism. I was moved by The World, and I cared about its characters, even the cads. That says something. Plus I’ll probably never look at theme parks in the same way again. (on DVD as part of Zeitgeist Film’s box set China On Film: The New Millennium)

3 stars

*The World is in Chinese and Russian with English subtitles.
*And no, I don't get the ending either.

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