The World
Jia Zhang-Ke, 2004

In a serendipitous event, The Economist ran a special on China the global economy the same week that I watched Jia Zhang-Ke's The World. As a westerner and particularly as an American, I tend to think of globalization the way Thomas Friedman leads me to think, i.e., on the way it will affect my life and the lives of other middle-class westerners. Our concerns are, to put them succinctly, "will our jobs be exported overseas, to someone in Asia making a small percentage of what we make?" "How will rampant globalization continue to change the American economy?"

In contrast to my concerns, The World is an examination of the effects of globalization on the Chinese working class. The World may be a beautiful film, but the world it paints is not a pretty picture. The general impression I got was that Jia sees the global economy turning the Chinese working class into a global lumpenproletariat. Chinese society is being torn from its roots with millions of citizens being forced, through economic circumstances, to leave their provincial hometowns and relocate in megalopolises like Beijing in order to find jobs. Herein lies the principal irony in a film full of ironies. The Chinese government, possibly the most successful Marxist regime in history, is subjecting its citizens to the same market forces of which Marx was so critical in market economies. Now, these days, China is about as Marxist, in an economic sense, as Switzerland, but all signs point to the fact they pay lip service to the Marxist-Leninist "brand", in spite of economic reality. Given the amount of criticism it makes against this new reality, it's remarkable that Jia was able to make this film under the (presumably) ever-watchful eye of the Chinese government.

Tao (Tao Zhao) is a young woman who works at an improbable theme park in the Beijing suburbs called The Beijing World Park. That this place actually exists is bizarre enough, but to concoct such a desperate yet engaging largely drama within its confines is extraordinary. The Beijing World Park, which, according to a website I found, covers roughly 117 acres of land 16 kilometers from Beijing proper, contains replicas at roughly 1/3 scale, of all the world's great buildings, from the Taj Mahal and the great pyramids to Big Ben and the entire New York City skyline. In other words, an interesting visual backdrop which creates a startling juxtaposition to the humdrum, barely-scraping-by existence of Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Taisheng Chen), who works along side his little brother as a security guard for the park. Their lives are the stuff of melodrama - Taisheng wants sex but not necessarily commitment, while Tao is holding out for commitment before sex enters the relationship. Taisheng drifts into a sexual relationship with an older woman whose own husband emigrated to France (the Belleville section of Paris, specifically) a decade before, and, for all she knows, may have died there.

Tao's job is two-fold - by day she dresses up in the local costume of whatever "country" she's working in that day and walks around or participates in localized dance routines or ostensibly acts as a tour guide. I say 'ostensibly', since we rarely see any of the employees working; they seem to spend most of their time hanging out on the observation deck of the "Eiffel Tower". By night Tao, again dressed in costume, participates as a quasi-showgirl in a series of massive, elaborately staged, and beautifully photographed shows attended by tourists. These shows, which are staged and shot very differently from the rest of the film, form a sort of punctuation or demarcation point in the structure of the film, which itself is quite minimally plotted.

In many ways the film is about as subtle as repeated hammer blows to the head - one construction worker from the provinces, who is helping build one of the numerous high-rise apartment complexes that house the massive influx of other provincial workers, dies in a construction accident. His family comes en masse to retrieve the body, presamably their first, and for the older ones, last visit to Beijing. In another subplot, Tao befriends Anna, an Russian immigrant who gets a job in the park, only to leave for the more more lucrative life of a prostitute. The explanation for her need for money is that she wants to visit her sister, who has immigrated to Mongolia. Tao and Anna form possibly the closest relationship in the film, despite the fact neither can understand the other's native language.

One is also struck by the amount of modern technology on display in this film. Everyone has a cellphone, and instant messaging is integral to not only the look and feel of the film, but to the plot as well. Given that the GDP per capita of China is less than 15% of that of the United States, the prevalence of technology considered relatively advanced in this country implies a tremendous disparity in the spending culture between the two countries, and a uncomfortable one for the Chinese.

In the end, working on such a massive canvas almost proves too much for Jia, who, for all the wonderful set pieces and fully-realized ideas in the film, cannot by the end keep the whole thing together. The ending itself feels perfunctory, and the lazy, casual pacing of the first 90-120 minutes is replaced towards the end by a flurry of plot developments for which we are not given time to assimilate by film's end. Ultimately, I can only assume that Jia accomplished less than he set out for, but it's heartening that a director from the People's Republic has both the ambition and the support to even try to realize such lofty aims in a gritty, contemporary setting.