Shoot the Piano Player
Jia Zhangke established his reputation with three remarkable films--Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002)--all of which were rapturously received at international festivals but are known in China only through bootleg DVDs. Made without government approval, these films officially do not exist and therefore cannot be shown. For his latest picture, though, Jia secured the right stamps in Beijing and Shanghai to go with his funding from Tokyo and Paris. His countrymen can at last watch one of his films.
And what will they see in The World? A fun-house reflection of the filmmaker's situation, and theirs, as globalized yet wholly isolated.
Jia's characters in The World are fictional workers at an actually existing theme park outside Beijing: a place with reduced-scale models of the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter's, the New York skyline (with Twin Towers still standing), the Taj Mahal. See the World Without Leaving Beijing! reads a billboard on the property, selling people their own constraint as a form of entertainment. Tao (Zhao Tao), a dancer in the theme park's gaudy shows, and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taishen), a security guard, are free-moving enough to have made it here from their rural birthplace in Shanxi, but it's clear they're not getting any farther. They may take the park's video "magic carpet ride"; they may sit in the facsimile of a passenger jet, where Tao sometimes plays a flight attendant to help visitors imagine the wonders of air travel; but their real world will remain the workers' maze of underground corridors and dressing rooms, where faint echoes of music and applause filter in from above.
I can see I'm in danger of insisting too much on the film's social critique, and so making The World into castor oil. It's anything but. Jia's patient observational style makes plenty of room for humor and incongruity--as when his characters carry on an argument in front of a camel, tethered forlornly next to the theme-park Pyramids, or when they get so excited by the miracle of text messaging that they visualize the calls as psychedelic cartoons. Jia's art can also open up the most devastating sorrow, sprung from nothing fancier than a chance meeting in a washroom or a few words scrawled on a cigarette wrapper.
Emotionally, The World is as full as any movie you're going to see--and it has something to say, by the way, about the situation of a billion or so people, for whom modernity is a growing pressure, a bitter fantasy, a show to be played for a little money.