I would’ve thought it impossible that such a beautiful movie could be produced in such an inescapably tacky setting. But after all this is the work of perhaps the most important film maker of China’s “sixth generation”, Jia Zhang-ke. Jia released his Cultural Revolution masterpiece Platform in 2000, and with the contemporary The World he may even have outdone himself. In any case, the two movies stand as a magnificent, if sobering, portrait of modern China.
World Park is a real theme park in Beijing which introduces visitors to small-scale (but often still pretty big) reproductions of the world’s most famous buildings and monuments, together with other cultural aspects of the featured countries such as music and dance. The visitors, however, are not the central characters in the movie. Those roles are taken by a handful of the people who work there: dancer Tao (Zhao Tao), her sexually frustrated security guard boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), and wardrobe woman Qun (Huang Yiqun), with whom Taisheng has an affair of sorts. The threadbare story follows this trio and more, as they go through their daily routines and talk with equal dissatisfaction about where they have come from and where they are going.
The movie does not pretend that its characters do glamourous work: they are very much on the low end of the industrial food chain, and the park seems to mock them with its tacky plastic facsimiles of wondrous sights they will never actually see. Jia’s film is also concerned, of course, with China’s progression toward becoming a modern, Westernised capitalist society. A theme park of this nature therefore acts as a pretty obvious metaphor for China’s aspiration to “join” the rest of the world. Jia’s attitude toward this is complex: he neither bemoans nor promotes globalisation, seeing his twenty-something characters as no more or less hopeless than their parents were during the Cultural Revolution.
I suppose that makes Jia a pessimist, but he is also a humanist. He lends his characters such depth, dignity and reality that they never seem hopeless. These are not the self-indulgent, disaffected youth who are currently ruining, among other things, Australian cinema and a good portion of American independent movies, but real people with real aspirations trying to make something of their lives in economically adverse conditions.
The World was shot on high definition digital video and is certainly among the best looking digital movies I have seen so far. It is also the first movie in which Jia has used the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and he appears to have adapted to widescreen composition with preternatural ease. Jia’s style may come as a rude shock (or maybe a loud yawn) to the uninitiated: this is a 140 minute movie consisting of, by my count, 140 shots. This makes for a gloriously slow pace, though Jia’s camera is also a lot more mobile than it was in Platform. The theme park lends itself to the exploration of space through 360-degrees, and the ever panning and craning camera helps to add fluidity to the movie in spite of its slow editing rhythm.
This is by far Jia’s biggest-budget movie and his first to be granted release in mainland China, albeit in shorter form (reportedly cut for commercial reasons rather than censored). That a work of such richness and cutting observation about China has been endorsed by its government bodes very well for Jia and his contemporaries. For this reason, The World should be the film that puts the sixth generation on the map.