Jia Zhangke made three films between 1997 and 2004, each one more rapturously received by the international critical community than the last. The success of those movies was particularly impressive because they were made-and in some cases distributed-outside of China's rigid production system. Not that Jia would have expected the government-controlled Chinese Film Bureau to finance his bleak, highly critical looks at life in some of the farther-flung areas of China. His first film, Xiao Wu, followed a young pickpocket who never worked up the energy to go straight, even as his friends gave up the criminal life. Platform tracked China's gradual shift from Mao to modernity through the eyes of an amateur theatre company. And in 2002's Unknown Pleasures, Jia turned his lens on two small-town teenagers whose directionless lives are ruled by Western culture. Small wonder that audiences in China were only able to see these movies via pirated DVDs.
Perhaps deciding that it was better to have him working within the system than outside it, the CFB actually provided the funding for Jia's latest film, The World, which premiered on the festival circuit last year and is now opening internationally, including a limited theatrical release in America. Set primarily in a Beijing theme park that contains scaled-down replicas of major world attractions (including the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and even the World Trade Center), the movie acquaints us with the sad-faced employees who toil behind the scenes at this tacky tourist trap. There are a number of names and faces to keep track of, but the central character is Tao, a dancer who performs in the World Park's nightly multicultural extravaganza. Tao desperately longs to travel around the world for real, but for now all she can afford is riding the park's monorail from "India" to "Egypt." She's also tentatively involved with a security guard, Taisheng, who may not be the best boyfriend material. Other characters include a Russian immigrant named Anna, Taisheng's cousin and fellow security guard Erxiao, and another potentially self-destructive pair of lovers, Wei and Niu.
Much of the movie consists of simply observing these people drift around the park, dropping in and out of one another's lives. Jia is primarily interested in the quiet moments between big events-as well as the things that are left unsaid between people-so there are no dramatic monologues or explosive confrontations. When a scene does contain a crucial piece of information (such as when Anna is forced to surrender her passport to the man who brought her to China), it is rarely the center of attention, instead happening somewhere off to the side of the frame. Jia wants to keep our attention focused on the environment these character inhabit-a fake version of a world they'll probably never see.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't make for wholly involving viewing. Compared to the director's previous movies, which tackled weightier themes, The World feels too small in scope-ironic considering its title. (Of course, that irony is probably intentional.) While Tao's feelings of alienation are compelling, her romance with Taisheng is dull and leads to a melodramatic finale that is tonally out of place with the rest of the movie. Aside from Anna and Erxiao, who starts to supplant his income by rifling through the performers' purses while they are onstage, few of the other characters leave any sort of impression. Overall, the scenes in the park are more successful than the scenes set in the outside world. The World Park itself (which is a real Beijing attraction) is such an odd place and it affords Zhangke plenty of opportunities to poke fun at his own country's vision of the rest of the globe. There's also a fun running gag involving cell phones; whenever a person receives a text-message, the movie cuts away to a brief animated segment expanding on that character's inner life (so, for example, we see Tao take flight and soar through the skies above Beijing, free to travel at last). That's the sort of pointed insight into these people's minds that the movie could have used more of.