It's a Small World After All
Chinese director Jia Zhangke plots the geography of cultural alienation in 'The World'
By Bill Forman
'America has lost her Twin Towers," a guide tells a small gathering of Chinese tourists, "but we still have ours."
Indeed, a World Trade Center still rises above the skyline of Jia Zhangke's The World, as do Egyptian pyramids, an Eiffel Tower, a Leaning Tower of Pisa (which consistently inspires tourists to take pictures of themselves holding it up) and various other wonders of the world that can all be seen, as the park mantra reminds us, without ever leaving Beijing.
Set in World Park, a Chinese tourist attraction where Spinal Tap's miniature Stonehenge would not be altogether out of place, Zhangke's film follows the lives of fictitious theme park workers who've come to the city with downsized dreams of glamour or, failing that, survival. His main characters are actress/dancer Tao (Zhao Tao) and her security guard boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), who muddle through a romantic relationship that's every bit as stunted as the dwarf monuments that surround them.
Resisting easy opportunities to mock the sterile setting in which his characters find themselves, Zhangke instead plays up the eerie feeling of this surreal postmodern landscape, aided in great part by the stunning cinematography of Yu Likwai (who named his own first film, Love Will Tear Us Apart, after a Joy Division song, which gives you some sense of where he's coming from aesthetically).
As his characters circumnavigate these "wonders of the world," their conversations as elliptical as the text messages they send each other, Zhangke quietly plots a geography of cultural loss and emotional dislocation. At 133 minutes, The World's pace is a far cry from most e-ticket rides (with the possible exception of Disneyland's glacial It's a Small World). But if you allow yourself to become immersed in it, Zhangke will show you an entire world without ever leaving the theater.
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