Thursday, November 29, 2007

The World

I often start something but can’t find time to finish, like this review on Jia Zhangke’s The World which I started at least a year ago. The World seems to be the least cheered film by Jia Zhangke’s Chinese fans, however, is much more appreciated by western viewers including Jonathan Rosenbaum. I still think it is a great one. Jia’s narrative style reminds me more of documentary than drama, while The World lacks this character but rather works like a typical story-telling movie. This does not necessarily mean mediocre, since it does offer more. Compared with the purity in his earlier works, The World exhibits more richness through its insightful metaphors, exploration of the complexity in social conditions as well as the variety of filming technique.


The World theme park in Beijing acts as a perfect setting for many metaphors: for the migrant workers, either construction workers or dancers, the park IS their dazzling world which fulfills their fantasy about traveling around the glode as well as achieving better living. Like Disneyland, the World theme park creates a perfect place to project the visitors’ dream, while the real world, what’s behind the clean and happy scenes, are supposed to be kept invisible to the audience. However, Jia chose to show us this hidden world: the hardship and struggles within the dancers and workers’ everyday life.

There’s an ironically funny effect every time we see the characters moving against the miniature attractions. The dilemma lies in their ability to migrate physically v.s. their inability/immobility to find a proper position in society. The question remains: Is there a proper identity for any of us in today’s hyperreality? What is left to be real?

Complex Social Conditions of China

Relationships became fragile and vulnerable in today’s complicated social environment in China. The sense of feeling lonely and lost is found in most characters. The security guy’s constant desire to possess his girlfriend’s body results in a frivolous and ambiguous relationship with Liao, a lonely woman whose husband stowed away to France ten years ago. The naked mannequin at Liao’s studio somehow suggests the place for fulfilling the male fantasy.

The friendship between Xiao Tang and the Russian woman is well conveyed. Sharing the similar fate brings the two women close to each other; language is no longer the obstacle in communication. The scene where the two meet at the restroom of the club is so powerful, simply heartbreaking. This recalls Jia’s documentary Dong, where the story flows from the construction workers at Three Gorges Dam to the prostitutes in Bankok – different people are connected not only by a river surrounding them, but also their way of making a living on their bodies.

The cheap life of migrant workers is fully revealed especially through a young guy’s tragic death. He writes down something before passing away in the shabby hospital. Jia didn’t show us what’s on the note immediately. Instead, after we hear the crying, the camera leads us to the blank wall with text gradually appearing: the dead worker’s last words are simply a list of amount he owed to his co-workers. In Dong we experienced another construction worker’s death and even followed to his extremely poor home. Such things are happening all the time in China and workers’ lives are worth much less than an economy car.

Use of Flash animation

A short Flash animation is used to portray characters’ strong desires aroused by each emotional phone message. The use of Flash is by no means Jia’s trick to get fancy or to copy Run Lola Run; it feels quite natural here since both Flash and cell phone message are digital media. The surrealist images and vivid colors of the animations are in sharp contrast with the grey tone of the filmic reality, an almost romantic and utopian expression of the characters’ feelings and desires. The similar contrast can be seen between the dancers’ splendid appearance in the show and their ordinary daily looks.

Open Ending

The open ending of the movie is quite successful. The ending scene offers different readings: Is it truly an accident or a planned suicide? At the very end, with the blackout of the screen, we hear the short conversation: “Are we dead?” “No, we’ve just started.” This raises another question: are they still alive, or that’s just some kind of unconsciousness? My reading is on the positive side:)

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