Director: Jia Zhangke
Plot: Tao (Zhao Tao) is a young woman who lives in and works at the World Park in Beijing, which features such attractions as models of famous landmarks from around the globe and live shows put on by performers dressed in costumes from different cultures. Tao is in a relationship with Taisheng (Taisheng Chen), who followed her to Beijing and works in the park as a guard. They undergo a period of strain and doubt mainly caused by Taisheng's dissatisfaction with her. Other characters are focused upon throughout the film, including a new Russian employee named Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) and other workers, including "Little Sister," a childhood friend of Taisheng's.
Thoughts: The fourth feature film from Jia Zhangke and the first to be approved by the Chinese government, The World does quite well in delivering his easily apparent ideas about the ever-dominant trends of globalization. The park itself (a dream location for a director like Jia, and one that makes me wonder if he draws inspiration from Antonioni much like some of the New Taiwan Cinema's directors did) broadcasts quite clearly the sad, absurd commodification of history and culture with its models of the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which, comically, people still pose with as if it were the real thing). By such a place as the World Park existing, actual countries and cultures are subjected to broad, stereotypical generalizations by being represented only by their best-known landmarks and fashion styles while travel itself is devalued (one of the slogans chirped by the park's recordings is "See the world without ever leaving Beijing!").
Besides themes and ideas, Jia also makes sure to flesh out the lives of his characters, many of whom work in different areas of the park by day and tend to chores in their dingy, dorm-like accommodations by night. The issue of money pops up numerous times throughout the film, perhaps most devastatingly in Anna's struggle to make a living in Beijing, the prospect of hostessing that is dangled before Tao at one point and the sad fate of "Little Sister" after an accident on one of his night shifts. Certain scenes stand out for their tragic quality and make The World an insightful and heartfelt cautionary tale of the pitfalls of industrial progress.
The World's story is peppered with several amusing animated segments that add small splashes of color and style to the film. Significantly, each segment springs from text messages, giving an almost mythic quality to the social media format that has only become more widespread since 2004. Lim Giong, who provided the music for Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo and a number of Jia Zhangke's other films (inlcuding Still Life, 24 City and I Wish I Knew), creates a score that fittingly alternates between upbeat and contemplative. One other notable stylistic feature is Jia's use of chapter headings at certain points, emphasizing specific passages and lending some structure to the film's events. Significantly, one chapter is entitled "Tokyo Story." That is no accident, as Jia also uses an excerpt from the famous Ozu film's soundtrack as the camera lingers on a crestfallen mother and father sitting together.
Final Words: The Ozu references may at first seem out-of-place for a film like The World, especially considering how little Jia focuses on the subject of family (as Ozu did throughout his career). Yet one can draw similarities between the two directors in how they each approach their respective themes with great degrees of patience, insight and compassion. Thus far throughout his career, Jia has kept his gaze firmly fixes on issues stemming from his country's race towards change and progress - and, judging from his international reputation, has reached a fair amount of success doing so. The World gives a pretty clear idea of what he is capable of as both a social critic and an artist, and presents his relevant ideas in a highly effective manner.