China's awakening from the long sleep of Maoism was bound to have profound social impact. And it was just as inevitable that serious filmmakers would set their penetrating gaze on the human dimension of all those changes.
Jia Zhangke, whose latest movie is both ironically and quite straightforwardly called "The World," observes with his heart.
A growing cult figure in the West for "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures," his studies of provincial youths coming to bewildered terms with the new possibilities of capitalism, technology and the incomplete transition to freedom, Jia not only takes his latest film to the big city but goes international with it.
Sort of. "The World" is about workers at World Park, an EPCOT-like entertainment center in which famous landmarks from Red Square to the Eiffel Tower are presented in smaller scale. "See the world without ever leaving Beijing" is cheerily blared over the monorail's public address system while passing such incongruous sights as maintenance men carrying water-cooler bottles past the Pyramids of Giza. The ad line also serves as a depressing reminder that even in a time of economic boom and eased travel restrictions, the vast majority of Chinese will never be able to actually take a trip out of their country.
The underpaid park employees we meet certainly won't. Mostly young people from smaller cities and towns, they live in dorms that are barely up to 19th-century standards, even as they present almost state-of-the-art entertainment for the attraction's guests. Though the film examines several of these workers, the central drama revolves around Tao (Zhao Tao), who dances in ethnically themed, sub-Vegas stage productions, and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard.
She aspires to serious artistic stardom. He's just making more money than he could up north and appears to be the one most in love. But like their place of employment and the elusive dreams it nurtures, their relationship's appearances are deceptive. Tao seems devoted to Taisheng but has a strange way of showing it. She'll let him get around most bases in a grounded airliner cockpit (it's another World Park travel simulation attraction) but never actually make love to her. He understandably asks if she's waiting for someone better, richer; someone who can offer broader horizons. Tao says that's not it, and when an opportunity of that sort arises, she proves to be a woman of her word.
Still, her persistent virginity can only appear to Taisheng as another facet of life at World Park, where not really getting there seems to operate on many levels. He takes up with Qun (Huang Yiqun), a knockoff clothing designer whose husband departed for France years ago. Meanwhile, tragedy and shame strike those closest to him, while Tao watches co-workers rise, establish households or slip from the fake comfort of the park world into more dangerous zones of the booming economy. As fears for her own fulfillment grow, so does her emotional dependence on her frustrated beau.
This couple's and others' stories sometimes veer into melodrama. But Jia's formal technique and insight into cultural change always raise matters above the soap opera level.
Jia has a passion for long-held shots that probe both character and institutional contradictions without mercy. But with some compassion and much dry wit. When a visitor mentions that there are no longer twin towers in the real New York, a World Park employee says "We still have them" with a mix of pride and rueful laughter at the surreal place his life's become tied to.
While their actual surroundings are either dreary or imitation, people of "The World" revel in digital fantasy. The animated sequences on their ubiquitous cell phones suggest both emotional states and an illusion of mobility these mobile users may never actually enjoy. Though not a complete pessimist, Jia ends on a note of tragedy as classically timeless as both change itself and the longing for a better future.
"The World" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for language. Running time: 139 minutes.