Jia Zhangke is not only the best filmmaker to emerge from China’s sixth generation of filmmakers, but also widely regarded as one of the most important and vital directors working today by both his peers and the critics. The World (Shìjiè) is his fourth film and the first to be set outside of his native province of Shanxi, although a number of characters are from Shanxi and communicate with each other in the Shanxi dialect.
It is also his first film to be made with the approval of the Chinese government, making it the first to be officially released in China, although his previous films had been screened at international festivals and were available in his home country on pirate DVD. The approval of the Chinese government, however, does little to change his creative process, and his films continue to be about the problems that have arisen from the advent of rapid social change in China. Platform, his second film which remains his best work to date, followed a troupe of performers during China’s Cultural Revolution, as they were brought face to face with society in the wake of the failures of Communism. The World instead deals with the problems faced by modern China, now a juggernaut of Capitalism.
The film is set in the fictional The World Theme Park (which is actually two different theme parks in China, one near Beijing as in the film and one in the South), which consists of various reproductions of world landmarks separated into different areas in order to simulate a travel around the world. It stands as a simulacrum for the real world in miniature, in which countries are reduced semiotically to their most recognisable features, the Eiffel tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, etc. The significance of this is that for the first time it is becoming easier for Chinese people to attain passports and Visas in order see the world, considering that they have enough money or influence; for these people the world is their oyster. There remains however, an underclass of people for whom the world remains unattainable; people like the characters in the film, that twenty years ago would never have left their province and now find themselves transplanted to the city. Unable to get hold of a passport, the only alternative they have is the World Theme Park, in which they are sold a false experience of the world through the constructed simulacrum as ersatz culture. Jia chooses to focus not on the park’s visitors, but instead the people who work there, as the employees both contribute to the propagation of this kitsch experience, but also find themselves constantly exposed to it.
While the film consists of an ensemble cast of those that work at the park, the main characters are Tao, played by Zhao Tao (who is, like Jia, originally from Shanxi and a regular presence in his films) who works as a performer at the park, and her boyfriend Taisheng, a park security guard, that followed her from Shanxi to Beijing. The relationship between the two is central to the film and serves as part of the metaphor for alienation in modern China. Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that in the film, like in the work of Antonioni, disconnectedness is more important that connections. Tao loves Taisheng, but he seems unwilling to commit. She consents to have sex with him in a hotel room in an emotional scene in which she also tells him that if he is unfaithful she will kill him as he is the only thing that she has. Taisheng however has been spending time with Qun, the sister of a business associate that operates a clothing shop creating knock offs of designer brands and is in the process of applying for a Visa to leave China for France. The sense of disconnection is captured expertly by Jai’s cinematographic technique, in which every scene in the film (with one exception) is filmed at mid-distance in one long take, again recalling Antonioni. Close-ups are a tool used to familiarize the viewer with the characters and point of view shots let us see what they see, by denying us these, Jia denies us access to the characters, creating a sense of distance and only furthering the alienation.
Perhaps the most real connection in the film is that between Tao and Anna, a Russian performer that comes to work at the park early in the film. Anna is trying to make enough money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, but in the first scene in which we see her she has her passport taken away from her for “safe keeping”, presumably in order to exploit her further. Unable to speak a common language, the pair nevertheless bond as they bump into each other in their daily lives working and living at the park, through sharing and crude signs and gestures. Working at the park doesn’t pay enough for Anna to be able to leave though, so she has to go and work somewhere else that pays better. Tao later runs into her at a nightclub where it is implied that she has become a prostitute, and although unable to communicate in words, the pair weep in recognition of the other’s situation. This Capitalist idea of the monetary worth of a human being is not exclusive to the plight of Anna, it can also be seen in the fate of Little Sister (a nickname given to him from his mother’s insistence when she was pregnant that she would have a girl), a friend of Taisheng’s from back home that he hooks up with a job working construction at the park. Working late at night because the pay is better, he is involved in an accident that proves fatal and dies in hospital; his last act is to write out on a piece of paper his meagre debts. When his family arrive from Shanxi, Taisheng takes them to receive their compensation as the life of a human being is reduced to monetary value and a human tragedy to something that just happens. This is the only time in the film that Jai cuts during a scene, first to show the state of shock Little Sister’s cousin Sanming is in, and then to show his father start to weep.
Due to the restrictions on filmmaking when Jia began to make films, he understood that if he was to find success he would have to find it on the world stage, and as a result his films are not just about problems in China, but problems that are relevant on an international scale. The problems that pervade the lives of the characters in The World are the same both in Jia’s own China as well as the rest of the world, the feelings of alienation and loneliness, the acceptance of ersatz culture, disconnection. It is no coincidence that the final chapter of the film is called “Tokyo Story”, as in the films of the great Yasujiro Ozu, Jai invokes a spatial narrative, as the park is as important as the characters that work within it. The World becomes a metaphor for our world and the character’s lives a metaphor for ours. For the working class in China, Capitalism has not brought those things they lacked under Mao and Communism, only disconnection from themselves and each other, and a sense of dissatisfaction. In our inauthentic modern world of mass media and the commodification of culture, the world in which the characters inhabit is really only ours as an example exaggerated to a semiotic extreme. The world remains a very alien place.
– originally published 10/27/2010