The World

To Westerners, Chinese culture always seems so cold and dehumanizing, overseen by a state that values the collective (or, at least, what’s best for the Party) over the individual (and his/her spiritual fulfillment.) I’m not sure if that’s actually the case, but Zhangke Jia’s The World does little to dispel this stereotype- painting his characters into a stark, serene prison of modernity that offers all the convenience one could hope for without much in they way of human connection.

The setting is a real-life theme park in Beijing featuring exact replicas of man-made landmarks from all over Earth, begging the question why leave China, when you can have the entire world here in your backyard? The metaphor and social subtext of this amazing construction couldn’t be clearer: Jia’s characters inhabit- and never really escape- this artificial prison that offers the illusion of variety but actually delivers a drab, superficial existence. It’s everything and nothing at the same time.

Tao and Taisheng are our protagonists, two young people working in this strange theme park prison who start dating seemingly more out of boredom than for any discernible reason. There is nothing in either of their personalities that makes them in any way unique- they could be anyone, and, in fact, pretty much are anyone. If that sounds bleak, or at the very least, purposeless, it’s because it is- Jia offers us little space for hope or joy in this world. Everyone just moves forward, because moving forward is all anyone knows how to do.

Other characters come and go into and out of their park world, but even these characters don’t seem to have much of a sense of purpose either- Tao befriends a Russian who misses her sister and escapes the theme park life for an even bleaker one. Taisheng kinda sorta starts seeing a fashion designer on the side, but neither of them seem any more into their affair than they do the partners they’re cheating on. Tao does have an ex who has become a world-traveling photographer, hinting at a more exciting life she might have achieved… or not. It all feels so arbitrary, so blah, that you have to wonder if this is Jia’s commentary on China in particular or humanity as a whole. Life just doesn’t seem to matter that much, really. It’s just something you do to pass the time until you die.

As if to underscore this point, Jia uses bits of animated sequences as a way of expressing his characters’ fantasies and dreams. The animation is much more colorful than the live action footage, though even here, the vector art is clean and sterile, too; even their fantasies just aren’t that alive. They also capture the Chinese’s obsession with technology as a way of communicating- texting offers more of an emotional intimacy than actual, in-person talking. (To be fair, that’s pretty much how it is in the West, too.)

Yes, The World is slow, the plot meanders, and the movie offers little in terms of hope. And yet, what makes it a great film is how it captures something very real about the existence of many people’s lives- specifically in China, but certainly all over the world. For all the ennui, Jia reveals a love for his characters that seeps into you as a viewer, too. It’s the kind of film that lingers on with you for weeks after you experience it, as opposed to those films that are exciting to watch now, and forgotten a week later. And, it ends in a very arbitrary but shocking way, leaving you with two poignant lines of dialogue you can mull over for the rest of your own potentially meandering life, wondering what it’s all really about.

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