The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

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