The World by Jia Zhang-Ke (Review)

As the film continues, it gradually becomes a treatise on the all-too common topic these days of modern alienation.
The World - Jia Zhang-ke

The World, the fourth feature from Jia Zhang-ke (and first not to be banned in his native China), is the sort of film that detractors of foreign art movies probably love to hate. The plot is ambiguous and obtuse at best, the characters just seem to drift through their scenes, it runs on for far too long (its runtime is just under 2 1/2 hours) and seems to go absolutely nowhere the entire time. And from that standpoint, I’d probably have to agree with them — The World is a frustrating film. However, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I found this sprawling, ungainly, meandering film absolutely riveting for nearly its entire length.

The simple reason for this is the film’s setting, the world (NPI) that it creates and lets the viewer glimpse throughout its entire length.

Reflecting on the movies I saw during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve come to notice that, for many of them, the setting was absolutely integral to the film’s effect, sometimes moreso than the characters and even the plot. After The Day Before’s spiraling storyline would never have worked as well had it not been for the ominous environment navigated by the protagonist. Much of Undertow’s beauty comes from its fable-esque vision of the American South. And the desolate, ambiguous landscapes and cultures of Schizo were a perfect reflector of its main character’s worldview. And it was The World’s world (again, NPI) that kept me absolutely enthralled, even when the film itself was going absolutely nowhere (or seemed to).

The movie is set almost entirely within the World Park, so named because it recreates many of the world’s most famous landmarks — the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, New York City (complete with World Trade Center) — for Chinese tourists, so they can travel the world without ever having to leave home. Inhabiting this microcosmic world are two young lovers named Tao and Taisheng, the closest the movie comes to protagonists. Tao works as a dancer in the many elaborate numbers that recreate folk dances from around the world, and Taisheng works as a security guard.

The rocky romance between the two is the film’s primary dramatic thrust. Tao loves Taisheng, and maybe even hopes to marry him. Taisheng, on the other hand, is upset that Tao won’t go all the way with him, which doesn’t help his wondering eyes. Further complicating matters is Taisheng’s part-time job as an errand boy for a local crime boss, which puts him in a number of compromising and stressful positions.

A number of other characters and subplots come and go over the film’s course: Tao’s fellow dancers, which include a group of newcomers from Russia; fellows from Taisheng’s home village who are looking for work; and the older married woman whose allure Taisheng can’t resist. But The World always circles back to Tao and Taisheng’s story eventually. As the film continues, it gradually becomes a treatise on the all-too common topic these days of modern alienation (something Jia Zhang-ke confirmed in the Q&A following the movie).

The film exhibits a subtle sense of irony here. Although the characters haven’t left China, the place where they eat, sleep, and breathe is as un-Chinese as you can get. Surrounded by the rest of the world in the midst of their homeland, they almost seem to exist nowhere, disconnected from their culture but unable to plug into any of the cultures on display around them. The park’s artificiality seeps into their own lives, and their relationship (which is about dispassionate as you can get).

In a greater sense, the film also seems to serve as a metaphor for modern China. Its rapid growth as a global economic power, its drive to become a major player with the rest of the world, and its attempts to satisfy the consumer desires of its citizens (as evidenced by the park) has resulted a certain loss of identity. Its citizens, as typified by Tao and Taisheng, now drift through life, their most important communications sent via text-messaging.

There are moments when the characters, namely Tao, break out of this, bringing a small sense of warmth and grace into their lives. Tao slowly strikes up a friendship with one of the Russians, a shy woman named Anna. Despite not understanding eachother’s language, they still manage to communicate and share pieces of their lives with eachother. The result is the closest the film comes to a real, honest relationship, complete with moments of warmth and humor.

And it’s in these moments that the movie’s ultimate message becomes crystal clear. It’s only when we step out of the shells imposed by our individual worlds, and instead trust in the basic commonality shared by all humans, that we can truly hope to communicate. While such a message may sound trite, Jia Zhang-ke’s extremely understated execution ensures that it rings with an incredible poignancy, such that when Anna’s storyline comes to fruition, there’s real emotional impact.

The film includes other subtle concerns for China’s burgeoning economy, and its potential to overshadow and diminish human value, relationships, and even traditions. When a friend from Taisheng’s old village is accidentally killed on one of the many construction sites that dot the landscape (a perfect symbol of the nation’s rapid growth), his parents arrive and Taisheng is obligated handle their son’s affairs. However, rather than provide a funeral service or even display any sense of grief, the best he can offer the stunned parents is to settle their son’s debts and give them any leftover money.

Unfortunately, such things are handled with incredible amounts of subtlety, perhaps too much subtlety. When I came out of the theatre, I was absolutely captivated by the film’s visuals (all of which are captured in HD, which gives the movie a very distinct look), though admittedly frustrated by the movie’s apparently directionless plot. And I doubt that I was alone. However, the more I’ve reflected on the film, the more I’ve come to appreciate what Jia Zhang-ke is trying to say about his country, and by extension, the rest of the modern world.

While the film could certainly have used a little tightening here and there, and perhaps a slightly stronger ending, it’s also a film whose open and meandering nature has allowed it to continue growing in my mind long after I’ve seen it.