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Capturing The Ennui of Escapism with Jia Zhangke’s “The World”

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My Own Private Cinema is a monthly RADII column that focuses on impactful films from China’s cinema history.

The World was Jia Zhangke‘s first film to be made with the approval of the Chinese government. First screened in 2004, it was his fourth feature film, after Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), the three of which are often seen as being a trilogy depicting the changes that modern China underwent around the Millennium.

This trio of early films largely went unrecognized in China, depending instead on funding from production companies outside of the country, and on the acclaim that they received at international film festivals, with Jia grouped together with other “underground” filmmakers in China at the time, like Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan, who had become known as the Sixth Generation of filmmakers in China. The films are ultra-realist, in ways ethnographic and shed light on characters on the fringes of society in his native Shanxi province.

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In many ways, The World was a break from the three feature films that Jia had previously made, and his way of embarking on a new, experimental period of his career.

Jia Zhangke’s World

The World is set around a group of friends and lovers who work at a theme park in Beijing. They work as security guards and dancers, they help migrant workers from their hometowns find jobs, some are immigrant workers from Russia who have their passports taken at the opening of the film and are forced to work as prostitutes to earn money. The initial glamor of the park is quickly put in contrast, offset by the grey, dull colors of the character’s lives at home.

The China that Jia was living in at the time of The World‘s production and release was one undergoing constant changes. The country had just gone through the SARS outbreak in 2003, Hu Jintao was the President of the People’s Republic of China and the country’s GDP was accelerating at a breakneck speed.

An indie darling throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Jia’s cinematic style was directly forged by the realities that he was seeing in China. His work had become known for reflecting how communities of people living on the edges of society were adjusting to China’s long march to becoming one of the richest countries in the world.

At the outset of his career, this reflection of modern life in cinematic works was almost non-existent in China. Speaking about some of the Chinese masters that had gone before him, Jia once said, “After studying film in Beijing for four years, I discovered that there weren’t any movies that had any relationship to my own life. I wanted to express all the memorable things that I had experienced, and I think this is still my primary responsibility as a filmmaker.”

He began expressing these things with films like Xiao Shan Going Home, which follows a poor cook making his way home during the busiest travel time of the year in China, Spring Festival. The film, which he made while a student at Beijing Film Academy, earned him critical praise and allowed him to finance his next movie, Xiao Wu, about a young pickpocket in Shanxi province during a period of criminal reform. From there, he made Platform, a three hour epic about a dance troupe from the 1970s to the 1990s, depicting the massive changes happening in China at the time. Unknown Pleasures, his last feature film before The World, takes the aimless birth control generation and its preoccupation with popular culture as its focus.

These movies were all made outside of the Chinese government’s purview, none of them being submitted to censors, and with each receiving funding from disparate production companies from countries like Japan and South Korea, earning Jia a reputation as an underground filmmaker.

With the announcement, in January of 2004, that China would give Jia his credentials as a director back, allowing the director to ostensibly take off “the underground hat,” there were fears that he would fall in the same trap as other notable Sixth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yuan and Wang Quan’an, each of whom had moved away from underground filmmaking with mediocre results.

On the contrary, the film was received remarkably well by critics and Chinese audiences alike. Speaking to how he approached The World, Jia said, “For me personally, government approval did not markedly change my creative process. My basic principle as a filmmaker stayed the same – to protect the independence of my research on society and people. Whether I shoot openly or in secret, my work cannot be influenced because during the shoot I am a filmmaker and nothing else.”

The World Within A World

Filmed at Beijing World Park in Fengtai District, to the southwest of Beijing city center, the world in which the film’s characters reside is full of miniature versions of globally famous landmarks, like the Pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in France and Tower Bridge in England. The image of these landmarks allows an idea of superficial worldliness to the film’s characters who are working in the park, as they show friends from their rural hometowns around the various attractions.

It also acts as a frame for the film’s plot as a whole, depicting the strangeness of global culture that was spilling into China throughout the 1990s and 2000s. At the same time, the characters that we follow through the film are scraping together a living and likely unable to afford to travel to these landmarks, something that makes the film equally poignant.

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The World, while bleak, realist and full of depictions of the ennui of modern life, is also redolent of the fantasy of the park in which it is set. We hear characters say things like, “I’m on the way to India,” as they take a monorail from place to place within the park. This sense of the fantastical is something that would also come to populate Jia’s films going forward, representing the monumental, and often difficult to fathom, upheavals that were happening in China at the time.

Surrealism is another theme at play throughout the film, with scenes in the film at times full of color and music and movement, and the film’s main character, Tao, dressed in flamboyant colors and exotic costumes as she dances alongside her colleagues for the park’s visitors everyday. This scenery is offset by the scenes that she shares with her boyfriend, Taisheng, who pressures her into having sex with him.

Speaking to this in an interview, Jia said, “I learned that people’s lives within that space are also quite surreal. When I spoke to the women who perform at the park, they said they had danced the same dance there everyday for the past three years. While they felt a kind of freedom in being able to randomly enter into different parts of the world, they also felt trapped in this insular environment.”

The color and glamor of the park, as well as the frequent animated interludes that Jia makes use of to show us text messages, stands in contrast to the fate of the residents of the park.

It cannot shield them from the tragedies that haunt them as the film unravels in slow, heartbreaking relief.

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz. He also correctly guessed all 100 second generation Pokemon in eight minutes for an online quiz.