It’s a Small World After All
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Jia Zhangke, China, Zeitgeist Films
In film culture, the word “simulacrum” has been thrown around quite a bit in recent years, no doubt due in part to the box-office success of The Matrixs Baudrillard 101 class. However, the demonstration of the illusionary nature of postmodern life in contemporary filmmaking, at least in this country, has become predictable and rote. From The Matrix to I Heart Huckabees, this quality is most often represented through a digitally malleable universe (or a universe available to digital malleability). Once the protagonist discovers and conquers this universe, the effect is that of the proverbial scales falling from his-and thus the audience's-eyes: a facile, messianic solution to complex phenomena. Such films that take the simulacrum as their main subject have as much applicability or humanness as a Road Runner cartoon: while the amorphous visuals may be mind bending, they have little to do with how we live here, now.
The World restores the immediacy and loneliness of the 21st Century global simulacra in which developed nations exist. Zhangke places the action within Beijing's enormous World Park, a Vegas-style touring garden of large-scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, the Pyramids, and, yes, a pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline. Struggling young people work at the park as dancers, security guards, and management. A repeated joke has the park's slogan, “See the World in Beijing,” mock their optionless lives: “the world” available to them on a daily basis is a grade-A simulacrum, a corny purgatory of empty sightseeing, while the actual world's wonders remain a distant and near impossible goal (the main character comments that she doesn't know anyone who's ever flown on a plane). The park itself captures China's disorientation as a society moving awkwardly between communism and capitalism-Zhangke's view of China's economic progress and emergence as a major player on the global stage is, as in the brilliant Unknown Pleasures, highly critical. The story revolves around Tao (Zhao Tao), a dancer, and Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a guard. They form the film's central couple, repeatedly fighting and, in the case of Taisheng, straying from the bonds of monogamy. While Tao and Taisheng's relationship plays out over the course of the film-punctuated by showy, somewhat gratuitous animated cell phone sequences meant to represent the constant electronic communication-their loved ones meet various fates influenced by an oppressive culture of survival: one of Taisheng's brothers, also a guard, is arrested for petty theft at the park, while his youngest brother, nicknamed Little Sister, is killed in an industrial work accident. Adding to the misery of wandering souls, a Russian dancer whom Tao befriends ends up resorting to prostitution after the Park loses her passport.
Unknown Pleasures was memorable in large part because of its inhabitants-living, breathing embodiments of youthful disillusionment, energy, and sadness. While this time Zhangke's visual achievements often outpace his sense of character, The World transcends mere 21st Century metaphor, becoming something human and tangible. The film's epic scope filters a series of intimate personal dramas through the nebulous, dislocated constructs of late capitalism technology, economics, and aesthetics. In demonlover Olivier Assayas cleverly created a balance between the world and his characters by making the latter ciphers, human glyphs existing in accordance with their inscrutable surroundings. A different sort of fragile balance between environment and individual informs The World, where narrative elements form a despairing tapestry of lives, appropriately pointing to larger societal implications. Unknown Pleasures filtered the enormity of international crises and landmark events through the eyes of Zhangke's young male protagonists, making palpable how such crises and events are simultaneously impressionable and beyond individual control. In The World Zhangke uses a similarly effective dynamic, this time making the huge, overbearing “world” the mise-en-scène and its populace the victims of hopelessly constricted destinies.
But as the title indicates, the Park, and the world that the Park pathetically tries to represent, is the real protagonist of the film. As a theme park/entertainment complex/learning center, World Park is part kitsch and on the other part pure aesthetic sublimity-Big Ben, the Vatican, and the Arc de Triomphe together at last. Zhangke, showing his mastery of basic framing techniques, creates shots drenched in absurdity and pathos, emptying World Park of any claims it might make to authenticity and investing it with the hopes and dreams of its staff. He thus makes something that might otherwise be a forgettable eyesore a fantasyland of beautiful poignancy. Gorgeous long shots (there is not a single close-up or even medium close-up in this film) set Tao, Taisheng, and their friends as confused people dwarfed by incomprehensible simulacra and urban developments. There's some great visual inventiveness on par with that classic symphony of postmodern architecture, Jacques Tati's Playtime: a tourist couple have their picture taken with the miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa, standing in the foreground and miming an attempt to keep the Tower from falling. Other towers assume even greater symbolic meaning. Looking at faux-downtown Manhattan, one character says, not very reflectively, capturing the melancholic, unsatisfactory role of simulacra, “The Twin Towers were blown up on September 11. We still have them.”
Can we ever bring back, or even evoke, the dead through illusion? Cinema works toward this desperate magic act, and The World is suffused with acts of near-immolation that play upon film's ability, and failed real-life promise, to cheat death-burning objects, papers, people all glow in the fire of ruined futures and sacrificial rage. Zhangke's cinematographer, Nelson Yu Lik-wai, films these scenes in counterpoint to most of the rest of the film, which exists in a swimming dream of cool yellows, greens, blues. Further emphasizing the funereal, Zhangke concentrates as much on the dank settings of tenement buildings and dressing rooms as he does the streamlined facades and viewing towers of World Park. In the end, Tao and Taisheng share in an oblivion that stands on both sides the simulacra saddles-only in fiction can these ghosts of the free market economy reach any sort of beginning after tragedy, a beginning that Zhangke might meant to be taken as China degree zero.