See the world without ever leaving Beijing is the slogan at Beijings World Park, a surreal, low-rent Epcot that features small-scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, London Bridge, the Pyramids and even Lower Manhattan. Encircled by a monorail and hiding labyrinthine underground tunnels for its workers, the theme park promises visitors a new world every day. Yet this acts as a cruel taunt to frustrated employees who repeat the same jobs day in and day out.
Filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia (often credited as Jia Zhangke), known for his scorching criticisms of modern China (Platform), has seen his work banned in Beijing three times. Surprisingly, his latest film, The World, was given the blessing of the Chinese authorities. One can only assume government officials were unable to appreciate the movies acidic subtext. Though less didactic than in his other films, Jia hasnt lost any of his subversive zeal. The World delivers a wry critique of the corruption and demoralization that permeates his homeland, presenting a bleak vision of an underclass trapped in meaningless jobs, cramped living quarters and jobs that offer few opportunities.
When we first meet dancer and hostess Tao (Zhao Tao), she wanders through subterranean dressing rooms cheerfully begging fellow performers for a bandage. We cant see the wound, but after a prolonged search she finally finds a dressing and rushes on stage to perform in a lavish Bollywood-style dance number. Whatever the injury, its quickly overshadowed by the demands of her job.
Taos on-again-off-again boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) is a security guard who hopes his shady business dealings on the side will help rescue them from the monotony of life at the theme park. Their friends and co-workers similarly struggle to find romance and prosperity in New China but more often than not end up suffering from a profound disconnection. Peasants from Taishengs hometown seek jobs in Beijings dangerous construction industry. Russian guest workers have their passports taken from them by manipulative park managers. They face their dilemma with half-smiling acceptance, epitomizing quiet desperation. Escape seems impossible.
The Worlds social commentary is far from subtle. Early on, Tao asks a group of card-playing security guards, Whos losing? They respond, We all are. In a later scene, Taos assigned to play a faux-flight attendant in a permanently parked airliner attraction. Its hard to miss the metaphor; shes not going anywhere. The women covet designer knock-offs and the tourists praise the authenticity of the parks Eiffel Tower before admitting theyve never seen the real thing. Jias film is filled with people striving for a facsimile of life.
While The World is long on irony, its short on drama. The characters live lives without real crisis or revelation, which is, of course, Jias very point. Slowly, the director weaves together a tapestry of everyday alienation and exploitation, the very things needed to hold World Parks kitsch in place. Theres a navel-gazing quality to his stories, but the constant hope that things will improve for these likable characters keeps our interest. In particular, Taos friendship with a Russian performer reinforces the common language of human yearning. Though the women dont speak each others language, they forge a meaningful bond. This fuels The Worlds tearful finale, where Jia dares to suggest that happiness may still be an option for a few but only by leaving Beijing.
Shot on video with a documentary aesthetic, Jia downplays the films fantastical setting, instead presenting a bizarre and outlandish microcosm of mankinds joy, frailty and sadness. The film asks how a person carves an individual sense of self in a world that relentlessly seeks to obscure identity and reduces even our greatest achievements to a theme park attraction.
The Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237). At 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 14.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].