A natural progression from his earlier features that confirms him as one of the most interesting and insightful chroniclers of the new China, “The World” reflects the shifting of Jia Zhang-ke’s attention from the changing face of small-town life to people from the provinces trying to make it in Beijing. Once again targeting the impact of urbanization and globalization on a traditionalist culture, the writer-director this time chooses a far tighter microcosm to expose a society frantically on the move while going nowhere. Jia’s passionate critical following could help this absorbing tapestry segue from festival berths onto specialized distribution slates.
The director’s fourth feature feels like the completion of a trilogy. Jia’s intimately detailed 2000 epic “Platform” used a group of friends in a northern provincial town to gauge the first impact of Western influence, consumerism and new values on post-Cultural Revolution China through the 1980s.
He followed in 2002 with the digitally shot “Unknown Pleasures,” which skipped ahead to the start of this decade, again examining Northerners, this time crippled by aimlessness and lack of prospects. While that drama played like a more shapeless, less rewarding revisitation of themes in “Platform,” Jia’s new film actively furthers his exploration of the consequences of growth and change in the name of so-called economic and cultural expansion.
Jia’s highly effective metaphor for an artificially evolved society is World Park, a 115-acre theme park on the edge of Beijing that features reproductions of famous international landmarks, among them the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, St. Peters Cathedral, the Pyramids and Leaning Tower of Pisa, all linked by a monorail.
The setting supplies considerable offbeat humor in the early going — a staffer proudly points out that the park’s Manhattan replica still has its Twin Towers — as well as underlining the distinctly narrow experience of the outside world provided to visitors via a passenger plane that doesn’t leave the ground.
Northern transplant Tao (Zhao Tao) moved to the city with her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng). She works as a dancer in World Park’s glitzy Vegas-style ethno-spectaculars, while Taisheng is a security guard there. Tao is crushed, however, when she finds out about Taisheng’s relationship with Qun (Wang Yiqun), a married woman who makes European designer knockoffs.
Floating among interconnected secondary characters in a loose, Altmanesque style, the film looks at the boyfriend problems and career moves of Tao’s fellow dancers. It also drops in on northern manual laborers working at the construction sites multiplying all over the city. In perhaps the most poignant strand, one such worker is killed in a building site accident. His death brings his rural parents to the city, where they appear like stunned, unworldly aliens.
The action is punctuated by cell phone text messages that spark animated interludes reflecting Tao’s emotional state. Throughout the drama, a doleful sense emerges of people separated from their families in a lonely environment of tenuous connections.
Jia’s regular muse Zhao is much more the center here than she was in his previous films, which were truer ensemble pieces. First seen in bejeweled Indian princess garb barking demands at her fellow cast members, the actress steadily and subtly exposes the needy, old-fashioned provincial girl beneath Tao’s sassy behavior and cultivated veneer of sophistication. That gradual peeling back of layers is reflected in the film as a whole, which starts out light and curious but moves increasingly in a contemplative, melancholy direction.
Distinctly modern and un-Chinese in their shooting style, Jia and accomplished regular d.p. Yu Lik-wai use the camera to quietly creep up on the characters, observing them from detached vantage points. Visually, “The World” has an especially keen feel for movement, both human and vehicular, from the gorgeous dance sequences to airport crowds to the constant blur of cars and trains.
While the film feels overlong at two hours 20 minutes, there’s a seductive stillness to its enveloping mood, with much to appreciate in the sureness of hand with which Jia allows his scenes the time to breathe. Echoing the drama’s gentle, undulating rhythms is Lim Giong’s silky-smooth electronic music that accompanies the World Park shows.