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Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Chen Tai-Sheng
ia Zhangke is not an underground filmmaker. Yet after his 1997 debut, Xiao Wu, the epithet stuck. Hallmarks of real-deal underground art floated right there on the surface: the ever-deferred mainland glasnost, the gritty Sixth Generation chutzpah, the river of accolades and funding from abroad, the verboten 16mm, the alluring air of subversion, the availingly whittled audiences. Unseduced, however, by the boho cachet of the soi-disant underground, Jia favors the term “independent.” He prefers liberty to interment.
Mobility vs. stasis—that’s another angle. For footing, Jia stands on tradition, but he never gets mired in it. To less mature artists, tradition makes easy counterpoint, a mere straw man for a backwards auto-da-fe. Jia isn’t interested in the heretic’s payback: his tempered heresy trades scorched-earth iconoclasm for twin sensitivities to tradition and its limits. Introducing his trademark subtleties, Xiao Wu whetted appetites worldwide: serenely deliberate, fine-tooth drifts over globalized China’s young, city-bound, and alienated. This first film trailed a pickpocket through his shifting territory and identity. With the next two, Platform and Unknown Pleasures, Jia wrapped up a celluloid triptych, his “Shanxi trilogy,” chronicling urbanization in far-flung northern China.
His fourth film lifts Jia aboveground: boasting the red imprimatur of the Chinese Film Bureau, The World is his first rubber-stamped for public screening in China. Here Beijing finally slides under his microscope. The capital’s 115-acre World Park houses the film, and gives its heroine, a dancer named Tao (Zhao Tao), her shimmering self-contained universe. Drudging alongside her rent-a-cop boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Tai-Sheng), Tao’s life is a monochrome tragedy of disconnections. After all, in The World, every relationship is fake or threatened or both. Taisheng, like everything else in the park, proves untrustworthy, cheating on Tao with a fashion-industry middle manager, whose husband stole away to Paris eight years prior. What appeared to Tao to be a harmless, glitzy karaoke party actually doubled as a door to upscale prostitution. Here romance itself is under attack.
"Oooh, he is FINE..."
The anxiety of faltering relationships adds to the anxiety of self-exile. Having forsaken the countryside, the park’s workers, lured from rural Fenyang to Beijing, jump into the urban deep end of alienation, with all the modern city’s compressions and expansions. Jia’s cartoon vignettes, mini-reveries sparked by text messages, get this across: they remind us how technology telescopes (like the borrowed binoculars, in one scene) and stretches distances at the same time, how stifled youths resort to fantasy.
Many dock Jia for dawdling, and confuse an auteur’s technique with a grating aimlessness, an untenable drag on narrative momentum. Care for detail is mistaken for worship of tedium. On the contrary, this is style and subject expertly joined, suggesting Jia as today’s painter of detachment, heir to Antonioni. The unique experience of China’s “new new generation”—rootlessness, cultural malaise, identities fractured by post-industrial anxieties—is reflected onto the audience by Jia’s shrewd direction. Long takes redolent of Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, locked inside the film’s episodic structure, convey the shattered downtime of day-to-day Chinese life. Brimming with stark desaturated shots of a snowless Beijing winter, The World is a tranquil vision of a tranquilized society.
"Now take off your shirt, mm-hmm..."
For many, the success of the film will hinge on the success of Jia’s conceit, the theme park as microcosm. At times, yes, Jia seems jailed in his own infatuation with the metaphor. More often than not it works. The way Jia weaves the metaphor into the lives of his characters discreetly outs unbridled capitalism as both callous and chimerical, duping and shuffling and cornering its victims. World Park enshrines displacement. Escapism, after all, governs this kitschy simulacrum, and escape is never found. The park employees are trapped: in their seedy, ramshackle apartments; in the park’s bunker-like backstage warrens; in the paralyzing uncertainty of their relationships; in the city itself, conned out of passports.
Grand as it sounds, The World is titled precisely. It exceeds easy irony. Obviously, the world of World Park is an illusion. Artifice floods the film. The crux of World Park is its forest of replicas: a Piazzita San Marco, the third-size Eiffel Tower, not-so-great pyramids, a rescued World Trade Center. One couple’s Kodak moment is blue-screened onto stock footage. By rote Chinese showgirls perform a choreographed Indian dance. What matters then is our interior world, and barriers to self-knowledge are often erected from outside, by forces as large as economies or as small as lust.
So Jia’s concerns aren’t the concerns of the Chinese alone. They cleanly translate to our neoliberal empire of no second acts—to anywhere touched by globalization. We’re back to mobility vs. stasis. Depending on whom you ask, globalization is either a rising tide, lifting all boats, or it is an earthquake that widens chasms and levels cultures. There’s truth to both. Call it seismographic cinema: tracking the existential ripples of economic upheaval. Then anoint Jia chief seismographer.
By: Roque Strew
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