Dir. Jia Zhang-Ke.China-Japan. 2004. 140mins.
China's censorship boardhad previously banned the work of film-maker Jia Zhang-Ke - that is until hislatest film, The World, which is as subversive and critical as any ofhis earlier features.
While some board members mayhave chosen to regard it as a travelogue selling the charms of Beijing'sgigantic World Park, with all its 106 replicas of global monuments, they couldnot have missed its essential message: that China is becoming more like therest of the world - and it's nothing to be proud of.
The World is overlong, repetitive and overstates its case, yetis clear and eloquent in its harsh indictment of the new China. Betterorganised and more controlled than Jia's previous work, it is also visuallymore appealing that anything he has done before. But it is still tough toswallow because of its fractured narratives and, while festivals may like it(it played both Venice and Toronto), but action beyond that is more difficultto predict.
Jia, whose fondness forstage has been evident in the past, starts by taking his camera into thebackstage area of the theme park to trace the personal stories of those living,performing and working there.
Among them are Tao (ZhaoTao), the fiercely independent showgirl who has an affair withless-than-faithful security guard Taisheng (Chen Taisheng); Xiaowei (Jing Jue)who taunts her boyfriend, Niu (Jiang Zhongwei), another member of the troupe,by turning off her mobile phone and refusing to tell him how she spends her timeaway from him; and You You (Xiang Wan), who gets promoted after flirting withthe boss.
But there is far more to itthan that. Behind the park's glossy sets and costumes, beyond the miniaturised,whitewashed copies of the Arc De Triomphe and Taj Mahal, the Twin Towers (stillthere) and the Pyramids, is the changing image of a people who still officiallycall each other "comrade" yet risk losing their identity without gaining a newone.
The guards who eat theirlunch on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower and the girls who dress in kimonosto decorate the Japanese quarter are not citizens of the world. Once theyremove their costumes and uniforms they are just like any one else. Most arefreshly arrived in the city from the countryside and looking for a break, butultimately end up living in communal hovels until something better comes along,willing to do anything if the price is right.
Their world is one wheremoney is worth begging, stealing and sacrificing one's life for. Mobile phonesand SMS have replaced human contact, Westernised slogans are used to sellvirtual dreams ("Give us an hour and we'll give you the world" promises one)and the best business plan, short of going to the West, is to copy it toperfection.
Cinematographer Yu Lik Wai(a director in his own right) provides Hia with long, complicated, masterfullyexecuted shots, astoundingly exploiting the park's structures. By doing so heaffords the actors an unusual degree of freedom in their movement, alternatingbetween sleek images of Westernised shows for the tourists and the squalor ofback street lodgings.
Zhao Tao, who has alreadyworked with Jia in Platform and Unknown Pleasures, is perfect asthe new type of Chinese woman who will not be ruled by men any more. But it isthe ending, with its suggestion that something in China is dead, and that thisis only the beginning and that worse is yet to come, that expresses Jia'sdisappointment most bitterly.
Prod cos: Office Kitano, Xtreem Picture, Lumen Films
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prod: Shozo Ichiyama
Cine: Yu Lik Wai
Ed: Kong Jinglei
Prod des: Wu Lizhong
Music: Lim Giong
Main cast: Zhao Tao, ChenTaisheng, Jing Jue, Jiang Zhongwei, Wang Yiqun, Wang Hongwei, Liang Zhingdong,Xiang Wan, Liu Juan