Jia Zhangke has touches of Kiarostami, Ozu and Antonioni in him, yet he’s ultimately as singular as any of the three. The World, his fourth feature and first to be officially approved by government censors, is no less sincere, indeed scathing, a critique of China’s cultural displacement, caused by the advent of a highly capitalist economic system paired with a lingering dictatorial grip on the social liberties of the people.
Set in an EPCOT-like theme park that included miniature copies of the world’s most famous landmarks, Jia’s film juxtaposes the run-down, Communist housing with the influx of free enterprise capitalism of the amusement park, illustrating how the country is trapped between a system that failed the people terribly and one that does not offer much hope to the majority of China’s 1.3 billion people. Most of the film’s characters work in the park, and all of them lack the resources to leave to perhaps visit one of the real landmarks contained within Beijing World Park.
Tao (Jia’s muse and second wife Zhao Tao), works as a dancer in a theater troupe that dresses according to whatever nationality it’s assigned that day. Even the humans are made into simulacra of true culture so tourists can take their asinine photos by landmarks (at least this park could attract all the people of the world who think world travel is all about a few snapshots of the most famous building in sight). Workers speak casually of going to Japan or India because they are speaking about sections of the park, yet they view passports as magic tomes. Passports and visas represent freedom, the power to escape to a place that might offer some stable mode of life.
One could easily compare the alienation between the characters of the park to that of the heroes of Antonioni films, but Jia does not settle for copying the Italian poet, instead analyzing a modern way of life that even Antonioni could not have foretold. Tao cannot connect with her boyfriend Taisheng when they are together - her chastity symbolizes this - yet text messages launch animated reveries of flight and freedom. These segments represent truly personal fantasies compared to the broad fantasies offered by the park. Jia stresses this point when he shows Tao and Taisheng making out in a mock airplane, fulfilling a sort of wish to join the Mile High Club (as well as flying away from here), only to cut to an animated segment of Tao flying outside the plane that feels more sensual and liberated. Why should text messages, the most impersonal and brief of communication models, inspire such moments of emotion? Perhaps the gap in conversation for each person to read and absorb the message; after all, look at some of the correspondence of even the most uneducated soldier in the times before telephones, when a simple update from the field could be a work of enduring literature. Sometimes, the most indirect means of communication results in the most personal revelations.
The same holds true for the friendship between Tao and Anna, the only supportive and genuine relationship in the film. Anna is a Russian trying to reach her sister in Mongolia, and she doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin. Tao doesn’t know Russian either, yet the two find ways to communicate with each other. As Tao settles deeper and deeper into the futility of her life, the noose tightens around Anna. Someone steals her passport to make her more pliable, and when she and Tao run into each other at a karaoke bar that implicitly doubles as a brothel, we intuit that Anna has been forced into prostitution. Though neither knows what’s bothering the other, they share a moment of mutual grief that is as affecting as any exchange between lifelong friends.
Taken with a scene showing a family receiving workman’s compensation for the death of a loved one in a construction accident, the exchange with Anna clearly visualizes the director’s anxiety over capitalism, which China has embraced with such zeal that it’s inevitable that money will be able to buy flesh, in one form or another. Yet these are both searing, human moments, there for more than metaphorical weight, and Jia’s blend of humanism with visual poetry elevates him to the highest levels of modern filmmaking.
My only complaint about the film is not really a complaint at all. Its ending is elliptical, potentially a reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou and just outright confusing. Yet it’s not antithetical to anything that came before and possibly works as the final means of freedom from a world that seems so stifling for those without the means to explore it. Even if repeat viewings don’t help me unpack these last three minutes, what came before is so beautiful, so masterful and so reflective that I will return to The World for the rest of my life.
UK company Eureka! have released The World to their vaunted “Masters of Cinema” label. This Blu-Ray only release is region-free and will play on any Blu-Ray player.
The great joy of companies like Eureka! and the Criterion Collection is their attention to detail in restorations. The MOC Blus of F.W. Murnau’s silent classics, for example, imbue octogenarian films with new life. Yet one cannot deny that films shot on HD look even better in Blu (see Criterion’s incredible transfers of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Che), and the transfer of Jia’s HDCAM footage looks astonishing. Flesh tones are realistic while colors pop off the screen. Even the banality of the bunker-like homes where city-dwellers live look beautiful in high definition. The World is a gorgeous film, and it’s immensely satisfying to see it get the treatment it deserves with so many of Jia’s films resigned to poor-quality DVDs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Audio isn’t as big a factor, but I detected no pops or hisses, a necessity in a film that relies on space and uncomfortable silence so much of the time. Dialogue is crisp even in the most defeated whispers, and the subtitle track appears to be a thorough translation.
Tony Rayns on The World - Rayns contributes a beautiful essay to the Blu-Ray’s booklet written in the updated context of Jia’s full filmography to this point, and this 21-minute feature manages to rehash almost none of the details of the critic’s written contribution. Rayns’ taped segment gives a broad background of the director’s life as a government-educated filmmaker who got his start making unapproved, underground features and even saw the films that informed him via surreptitiously obtained bootlegs.
Also included is a 68-minute making-of documentary, “Made in China,” a fittingly wry title for a companion piece to a film as ironically named as The World. The documentary covers the film from preproduction as Jia finally decides to submit a script to the authorities to avoid imprisonment for working outside approval through shooting. The portrait we get of Jia is fascinating. We see a man who cares more for the social than the political concerns of the Fifth Generation filmmakers that put China at the forefront of cinematic invention in the late ’80s and ’90s. He’s an insightful filmmaker, as analytical about and emotionally invested in the actual process and the crews he chooses as he is the themes of his work. He’s so superstitious that he and his crew engage in Chinese religious rituals before shooting
So captivating is Jia, with his pudgy, childlike face and unforced intelligence, that I could watch this hour-long documentary and turn around and adore the best feature in the set, a 25-minute interview with the director. He offers a broad overview of his career to that point. He speaks of his films and what he wishes to say with them, the issues of censorship, his style and other matters. The interview is revelatory and presents Jia as a remarkably thoughtful man whose intelligence does not overwhelm his emotions and values.
The aforementioned booklet is one of the finest put out by MOC, perhaps second only to the jam-packed novella that was the booklet for Godard’s Une femme mariŽe. Besides Rayns’ essay, MOC includes an essay by Jia in which he argues for the re-emergence of “amateur cinema” in which filmmakers will tell stories that affect them in ways they envision rather than simply aping the preconceived notions of film technique. Critic Craig Keller contributes a piece on the film’s ambiguous ending and offers an explanation similar to my own, though his arguments approach the same conclusion from angles I did not consider. The most amusing inclusion is a government-sanctioned release about Beijing World Park originally included in the press booklet for the film. It’s the ultimate display of the Chinese government’s hypocrisy, using their Maoist control to essentially advertise an amusement park.
I cannot say whether The World is Jia Zhangke’s best film, but it certainly makes a strong case for consideration on the short list of the decade’s best films. Jia would go on to blend documentary and fiction with his subsequent movies. In the making-of documentary, Jia notes that China’s social control is lessening, that the censors who approved this feature were different from the ones who forced him underground for give years. He noted that this slight change was not worth celebrating, and he sounded like a man on a mission to see the country through to some form of freedom. With The World, he examines one possible method of delivery, capitalism, and concludes that it doesn’t fundamentally change anything any more significantly than the slight lenience of the censors signals artistic liberation. That’s why the film is so sad: its maker is unsure whether he’ll ever see a truly free China, or if the rest of the planet is in similar straits. But just because it’s meditative doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful, and Eureka’s transfer is one of the most gorgeous of the year, and the extras are truly about quality over quantity. Highly recommended.
- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. When he is not writing movie reviews, he is inevitably writing something else and will continue to do so until he runs out of excuses not to go outside.
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