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"The World" is a theme park on the outskirts of Beijing, sixteen kilometers from the Chinese capital, designed around scaled representations of the world's famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.The site is seen here not from the visitors' point of view but through the eyes of a few of its staff, lonely people, communicating poorly, a bit disillusioned with life, glittering for the tourists but dull and restricted as far as they are concerned. We meet, among others, pretty young dancer Tao and Taisheng, a security guard who is fond of her but not of personal commitment...Written by
A Sad Picture of How Modernization is The Same the Whole World Over
"The World (Shijie)" is one of the saddest films I've ever seen and is a moving visualization of the tragedy of rising expectations.
While it is set very particularly in China, it achingly proves the universality of the twin globalization pulls of modernization and immigration over the past three hundred years around the world, recalling films from "Hester Street" to "The Emigrants (Utvandrarna)," and films about cities in throes of developmental change, like "Atlantic City."
These are universally recognizable young people - they rebel against and yet feel tied to their families and regretfully break ties with old friends; they fight with their siblings but bail them out; they get lonely, a bit homesick, and bored; they are jealous and ambitious; and they constantly compromise, particularly the women bargaining with the oldest currency. With what is a bit heavy-handed symbolism, the film is specifically set in what I presume is a real amusement park called "The World" on the outskirts of Beijing that replicates landmarks in scaled miniature and focuses on the employees and their extended, inter-connected network of friends and family.
At first, they look to us as swaggering city sophisticates, as they dress-up in international costumes for a park revue, surrounded by emblems of international commercial culture, like fake Louis Vuitton bags and movie posters, such as of "Titanic," They jealously and zealously call each other constantly by the most modern cell phone and text messengers, particularly from the encircling monorail that at first seems like a symbol of modern technology, but is really cobbled together from airplane parts--though one woman wistfully notes that she doesn't know anyone who has been on a plane- a frequent response to a call is "I'm on the train." -- but by the end the canned voice of progress is emblematic of the dead end circularity of their lives as they can't get passports to leave, let alone to see the real landmarks.
Travel is a constant theme visually and of conversation - when a country bumpkin shows up, the surprised greeting is "How did you get here?" such that "I bought a ticket." is not self-evident. -- to the security guards riding camels around the fake pyramids and horses around the fake castles, to the six hour bus ride it takes to another city to pay off a relative's gambling debts, and emphasized through fanciful animated interstices. The ironic geographical headings of the chapters emphasize a character's quixotic goal -- "world.com", "Ulan Bator Evening," "Belleville", "Tokyo Story." Striving as they all are, for these folks even Ulan Bator, the depressed capital of Mongolia, looks like a step up.
There are moving scenes when immigrants with different languages try to communicate to share the commonalities in their lives -- a Russian immigrant is terrified when her passport is taken away, while the Chinese woman is envious that she even has one.
It is a bit confusing keeping up with the various characters, in and out of their work costumes, especially when the two main characters seemed to change so much without explanation, but they are enormously sympathetic so it is devastating as we see their hopes and dreams, however unrealistic or selfish, defeated. And those who succeed do so on very compromised terms.
They are also not very articulate, which writer/director Zhang Ke Jia compensates for by spending a lot of time slowly setting up individual scenes and watching people interact, as we see how different they are in different contexts with different people, as body language becomes more important than words, whether spoken or in text messages.
While the cinematography was beautiful, the print I saw in New York was a bit scratchy and the English subtitles had several misspellings. I'm sure subtitle-dependent viewers lose a lot of the significance of different accents and regional differences among the employees from all over China.
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