The scene is picture perfect: a magical pinkish twilight, a gentle hill, the fairy spire of the Eiffel Tower rising in the distance. Then an old Chinese man -- bedraggled, stooped under a huge basket of trash -- steps into the frame, transforming the scene into the exquisite inverse of a classical Chinese landscape painting. Instead of showing natural elements -- trees, mountains, streams, abundant space -- creating a harmonious realm for miniscule human figures, director Jia Zhangke has flipped the proportions, revealed the human cost at the core of an ersatz ideal.
The scene, which appears early on in the Chinese director's fourth feature film, tells us that The World Jia is depicting will foreground what its creators might wish to disguise: the suffering that lies under a facade of gleaming perfection. The setting of the film is a real-life theme park in Beijing where visitors can “see the world without ever leaving Beijing.” World Park recreates numerous international sites and structures -- the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Moscow's Red Square, standing just outside China's capital city.
The park would be too perfect a metaphor -- E-Z Symbolism for the toll of globalization, China's lurch into the market economy, fueled on a generation's shattered dreams -- were it not for the rigor of Jia's storytelling technique. Jia regards his characters, the young people who work at the park, with a dispassionate tenderness, his camera hovering in cool, appraising takes just around the corner, or slightly below eye level. The result is a kind of cinematic poetry, born of reporting techniques -- lingering minutes that break into moments of overflowing sorrow, pain, fleeting beauty.
Jia opens The World with a long tracking shot, following the dancer Tao, clad in an emerald-green sari, as she saunters through hallways and corridors. “Does anyone have a Band-Aid?” she calls out, glancing into dressing rooms filled with young Chinese in cowboy hats, corseted dresses. “Anyone?”
Tao will continue to float through the film, looking for the emotional equivalent of her Band-Aid -- solace or love from her boyfriend, Taisheng; from her friend Wei, caught up in a jealous relationship; and even a Russian performer, Anna, with whom she shares no common language but forges a tender friendship. These citizens of The World are strangers to Beijing, and even more so to World Park, a shimmering simulacrum of prosperity and human progress.
Jia continually underscores the backstage, the off-scene, the oft-concealed human labor that has erected both this sham realm and its real-life equivalent. Security guards carry water bottles past a replica of the Great Pyramids; later, they haul a piano past a neon sign bearing the slogan “Give us a day, we'll show you the world.” The park's famous sites are familiar to its performers only from pictures or movies; most of the staff members haven't even traveled beyond their rural hometowns or Beijing.
Tao herself came to the capital from the northern province of Shanxi. Even though she is Chinese, she seems nearly as lost as her displaced Russian friend, Anna. Their friendship is chronicled in Russian, Chinese, and fragments of English, and it's cemented in song. Anna dreams of visiting her sister in Ulan Bator, and she passes on to Tao a song her sister taught her. They head back home on a horse cart, a techno version of the song playing; with their glowing, high-cheekboned faces, they seem like sisters, riding across the tundra.
Jia often uses these types of performative scenes -- dances and songs representing dreams of togetherness and escape, expressing things often left unsaid -- to underscore the disconnect and stasis in his characters' real lives. When Tao and her friends receive text messages on their cell phones, the film breaks out of its restrained reportage and enters into flights of animated fancy, revealing the Technicolor imaginations of its characters.
It's a bleak reprieve; the majority of their lives are dedicated to a mockery of economic and personal fulfillment. They make dresses copied from Western fashion catalogs, flee to Europe on rickety boats, work on hazardous skyscraper construction sites. Tao lounges in a model of an airplane, wearing a smart flight-attendant outfit, coveted throughout Asia as a sign of cosmopolitan, upward mobility. “Everything is for you to experience the beauty of travel,” intones a recording, to which Tao sighs and says, “Being stuck here all day will turn me into a ghost.”
Jia's film is a work of extraordinary density, although its long, loose-limbed takes may initially lull viewers into thinking The World remote or noncommittal in its views. This is the first of Jia's films to past muster with Chinese officials; the rest are only available on pirated DVDs in China -- despite the uncompromising force of the film's critique of the new China. Perhaps his film's elliptical nature and its seeming reserve have spared it the censors' wrath. Jia has married delicacy and detachment, compassion and scathing criticism, polemics and poetics in a film that makes its points without sacrificing the human lives that illustrate them.
As Tao and Taisheng sit as if stupefied under a celebratory sign reading “double happiness,” Jia makes his case clear: For this lost generation, there is no escape from the world.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.