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August 3, 2005

Shijie (The World)

I caught Jia Zhangke's 2004 film, Shijie (IMDB) over the weekend, but haven't been able to find a satisfying way to approach my review of the film. Shijie (English title, The World) takes place in a Beijing amusement park called "The World," where replicas of the Eiffel Tower stand next to a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa. A short monorail ride will deliver you to the Pyramids of Egypt and a small-scale version of Manhattan, with one park employee sardonically commenting that "we still have our twin towers" (the World Socialist Website has a good read of this "fa├žade of cosmopolitanism").

Employees of the park perform dances from some of the countries represented in the park's attractions, inviting readings that interpret the film as a commentry on China's engagement with globalization. Roger Ebert offers one variation of this reading, noting that "The World has been made in China by Jia Zhangke, a director who has been in much trouble with the authorities -- not because he embraces the West, but because he mocks modern China for trying to become Western in such haste. He doesn't yearn for the days of Chairman Mao, but he doesn't find the emerging China much of an improvement; the nation seems trapped between two sterilities." Ebert's read is a compelling one. The film clearly finds some humor in the park's shabby simulacra, partciularly when it shows tourists posing for photographs in front of the Leaning Tower as if they are holding it up, but it's not nostalgic for an idealized past before globalization.

The film focuses primarily on Tao, a dancer, and Taisheng, who also works at the park, but opens broadly on their network of co-workers who have come to Beijing to improve their lives. The shiny surfaces and elaborate costumes of the park are visually contrasted with the rundown apartments where the employees live (a point also raised by Ebert and the World Socialist Website). We also see Russian workers who are imported to work in the park, with their "manager" demanding to hold their passports. These "labor issues" are also explored through Tao's younger brother, called "Little Sister," who takes a job as a construction worker.

But my most vivid memory of the film is its "slowness." The World is dominated by long takes and often portrays characters in the act of thinking or reflecting. And while I'll admit that I found this slowness frustrating, it's the kind of film that I'm convinced would reward repeat viewings.

Update: Here's an interview with The World director, Jia Zhang-ke, who discusses, among other topics, some of the institutional and industrial pressures of making a film in China.

Posted by chuck at August 3, 2005 4:53 PM

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Comments

Chuck, Here's Dennis Lim's interesting review from the Voice.
I liked "The World" a lot but somewhat preferred both his earlier films, "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures", to it. The latter is on DVD (highly recommended) and the former is coming out soon, I believe.

Posted by: girish at August 3, 2005 8:01 PM

To elaborate a bit, Jia's long takes and pacing, which I find effective, seem influenced by Hou.
My only small complaint about "The World" (and maybe it was just my mood when I saw it) was that he seemed to be leaning a bit too long and hard on the theme park metaphor (and it is a lengthy film). But I suspect I'd like the film even more if I saw it a second time. There's a terrific Artforum essay on him by James Quandt that came out in the last few months (but is not, alas, online).

Posted by: girish at August 3, 2005 8:13 PM

Thanks for the tips, Girish. I'll be sure to check out his other films. I shouldn't have made the long takes and pacing sound like a complaint. That kind of frustration can be very productive, and yes, I think I'd like the movie better if I saw it a second time.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 3, 2005 8:47 PM

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