PRINT Summer 2005


In Chinese society today there are a lot of moments where what’s going on could be called a show.
—Jia Zhangke, interview with Valerie Jaffee, in Senses of Cinema, July–Sept. 2004

Milieu is everything in the assured, almost ethnographic work of Jia Zhangke, and with The World, China’s leading independent filmmaker—make that China’s leading filmmaker—emerges from the underground only to enter an officially sanctioned virtual reality. Coproduced by the state-run Shanghai Film Studio, Jia’s latest movie (which made its US debut last October at the New York Film Festival and arrives in theaters this July) is set largely within the confines of that elaborately themed environment known as Beijing World Park.

By contrast to this rigorously controlled zone, filled with more than one hundred scale models of the world’s most famous buildings, the writer-director’s three previous features framed the bewildering social landscape created by the world’s fastest-growing economy. Jia’s territory was scarred, if not convulsed, by the shift from collectivist state to individualistic market rule and populated mainly with disaffected young people, small-time hustlers, layabouts, and would-be entertainers. Expressions of China’s here and now, Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and Unknown Pleasures (2002) were hailed at international festivals but could be seen in China only at “restricted” university screenings or on pirated DVDs.

Shot by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s first features share a strong visual style, a powerful set of concerns, and a vivid sense of place—all three were filmed in dusty, inland Shanxi Province, where the director’s cosmopolitan parents were sent during the Cultural Revolution and where he was born in 1970. Dislocation is Jia’s heritage as well as his theme. With their long takes and contemplative middle shots, his movies traffic in visceral defamiliarization. The camera may be fixed but the world is flux, governed by mysterious forces well beyond his characters’ comprehension.

Once a professional break-dancer (his technique picked up from the 1984 American movie Breakin’) and later a painter, Jia entered film production in opposition to the abstract period pieces produced by Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and other members of the so-called Fifth Generation: “After four years of watching Chinese films, I still hadn’t seen a single one that had anything to do with the reality that I knew,” he remarked in an interview two years ago. Along with Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Lou Ye, Jia belongs to a “Sixth Generation” that attracted attention in the mid-’90s with their unofficial (privately financed), low-budget productions.

These directors typically made contemporary youth stories in urban settings. Some of these were banned, save for cineclub screenings, but most became available on DVD—and nearly all were shown at film festivals abroad. Jia, however, was also something of a regionalist. His first feature, Xiao Wu (also known, in tribute to Robert Bresson, as Pickpocket), is a remarkable, semidocumentary immersion in backwater urban low-life in which a supremely diffident thief from Fenyang fails to adapt to China’s liberalizing economy.

Jia’s empathetic evocation of a hometown loser was followed three years later by an ambitious generational portrait. Elliptical yet concrete, Platform is a superbly detached three-hour epic which, spanning the 1980s, filters that decade through the mutation of the propaganda-performing Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the equally cheesy All-Star Rock and Break-Dance Electronic Band. Again, Jia shows his concern for the economically unmoored, as such itinerant troupes are the lowest class of Chinese cultural workers. Played out in a series of unheated factory halls and outdoor courtyards, Platform projects an environment that is at once dreary and exotic, vast and imprisoning. With its objective, almost clinical viewpoint and lovingly chosen, generally bleak locations, the movie looks like a documentary. But, perhaps influenced by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s magisterial 1993 Puppetmaster, which Platform approaches in its awestruck sense of temps perdu, Jia finds many ways to transform the world into a stage.

The play of the proscenium against the filmmaker’s clear Bazinian taste for unmediated reality is fascinating: When one character is poised to disappear from the narrative, Jia allows her the privileged moment of a solo dance number performed in the privacy of her room. There’s a quietly magnificent, deeply melancholic long shot of the hapless Electronic Band, listlessly pelted with garbage by one of its first audiences, and another in which the troupe performs by the side of a highway on the banks of the Yangtze, a boat laden with Panasonics floating past. The movie’s penultimate image, a domestic scene held just long enough for the full weight of quotidian despair to infect the audience, epitomizes the protagonists’ odyssey from kindergarten We to isolated Me.

Platform, which takes its title from a hit Chinese rock song of the ’80s, is pop art as history. The more impressionistic and improvisational Unknown Pleasures takes its Chinese title, Ren xiao yao (which translates as “Free of All Constraints”), from a Taoist poem that became a hit pop song some twenty-four hundred years after it was written. Jia’s most concentrated evocation of spiritual malaise, Unknown Pleasures teems with visual interest. The movie was shot on digital video, allowing Jia to film in all manner of public places: Yu’s camera hunkers down in restaurant booths and sidles into automobile backseats, frequently observing the characters in real time.

At once distanced and immediate, Unknown Pleasures suggests a coolly formalist reinvention of neorealism, a fiction with the force of documentary. Two unemployed boys vegetate in the ugly provincial city of Datong—hanging around a community recreation center that might be a derelict factory, making occasional trips to cavelike discos, dank noodle houses, and tawdry video parlors. One seems addicted to a cartoon video of the classical Chinese novel The Monkey King, which he watches over and over with his studious girlfriend, as if to forestall the inevitability of her leaving him; the other pursues a pretty dancer with the Mongolian King Liquor troupe, represented by a gangsterish “agent”—her former high-school gym teacher.

Hitherto unknown pleasures are everywhere in evidence, yet satisfaction itself is beyond reach. All is crowded and shabby, half built or despoiled. Society seems divided into mercenary winners and depressed losers. In the end, the two friends join forces for an act of ridiculous romantic despair—which cannily suppresses even the promised cinematic pleasure. Then, in a final shot comparable to the majestically downbeat “real time” closer in Platform, one of them entertains us by singing the title song while under arrest, after a pathetically bungled bank robbery.

Explicitly topical as well as self-referential, Unknown Pleasures acknowledges China’s ambiguous role in the global village, as well as our own. (At one point an explosion is heard, and one character starts: “Shit, are the Americans attacking?”) The action is set in the spring of 2001, and reports on the downed US spy plane are regularly televised; only moments after the TV announces that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics, the sky erupts with fireworks. The World, unfolding as it does in China’s most famous theme park, is at once closer to the action than Jia’s other works and, paradoxically, even more insular.

The amusement park has served filmmakers as a ready-made set, if not a found, allegorical landscape, since Edwin Porter made Rube and Mandy at Coney Island in 1903. F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Pál Fejös’s Lonesome (1928) are only two silent movies in which the urban amusement park functions as the nexus of freedom and modernity; nowadays, as in Westworld (1973) and The Truman Show (1998), movies are more likely to posit imaginary theme parks as sinister manifestations of unfreedom and postmodernity. But few films have been as confined to the location as The World, and few amusement parks offer the World Park’s hermetic totality.

A 115-acre tract southwest of the city, the Beijing World Park opened in 1993, with “scenic areas” devoted to Asia, Africa, Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Trains and motorboats traverse the park, simulating a trip around the world. Attractions include scale models of the Cheops Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, and the White House; the Statue of Liberty, Copenhagan’s Little Mermaid, and the Venus de Milo are among the featured statues. Jia compounds the site’s geographical delirium by merging the World Park with its sister attraction, the Shenzhen World Window, hundreds of miles to the south, while blurring the distinction between onstage and backstage. The World opens with a prolonged Steadicam tour of a chaotic dressing room as the dancer Tao (Zhao Tao, who played similar roles in Platform and Unknown Pleasures), in a gauzy green harem outfit, noisily solicits her comrade showgirls for a Band-Aid before she goes out to perform on the stage adjacent to the mini–Taj Mahal. Despite her apparent brashness, Tao will remain throughout the movie alone in the World and seeking emotional solace.

Jia’s previous films peered behind the facade of the Chinese economic “miracle”; The World makes that facade its subject. As metaphor, not to mention documentary backdrop, the film’s hyperglobalizing, oppressively ersatz location is almost too powerful. In its dedication to social organization, including the rationalized pleasure principle, the theme park has long been recognized as an ideological happy hunting ground that is both an achieved utopia and a form of soft totalitarianism—and this is particularly true in East Asia. In a famously mordant inversion of that formulation, the novelist William Gibson called Singapore “Disneyland with the death penalty.” More recently, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma wrote that themed environments like the Beijing World Park “are to East Asian capitalism what folk dancing festivals were to communism.”

Where folk-dancing pageants demonstrated joyous social cohesion, however, the World Park is designed to dramatize social cohesion and showcase economic growth. American theme parks are typically repositories of a sanitized or substitute national history (and in the former East Germany and the Czech Republic, the mentalité of the lost Communist order, known in German as ostalgie, has been preserved in the form of ironic or cautionary theme parks). Asian theme parks, Buruma suggests, have no particular interest in history—save for its obliteration. Ultimately, all China will become “a continent-sized Singapore” where “constant fun and games will make free thought redundant.”

The World Park’s slogan is “Give us a day, we’ll show you the world”; its theme music is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” (The lone trace of Communism may be the atmosphere of enforced optimism.) Tao and her boyfriend, Taisheng, a security guard, as well as the other workers of the World, are diligent, docile consumers—highly media-trained, well-adjusted to ongoing upheaval, and thoroughly privatized in their aspirations. All have come to Beijing from someplace else; only one is seen to have any family. Although more socially integrated than the protagonists of Jia’s previous films, they are even less rooted in a recognizable social reality.

Their milieu is a social illusion. It might as well be cyberspace. Cell phones figure in nearly every scene, providing characters with instant updates on their paramours as well as a generalized sense of total surveillance. One is seldom more conscious of words bouncing off a satellite than while watching this film. To add to the web of spurious communication, The World is punctuated with perky, animated versions of the text messages that Tao regularly receives—stand-ins for her inner life. A techno-pop score, the first unmotivated music in any Jia film, provides a sense of voluptuous anomie (the Taiwanese composer Giong Lim also provided music for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s kindred Millennium Mambo [2001]), while shots of an empty highway add to the sedated sci-fi quality. It is never entirely clear when the working day or where the World Park ends.

Happy tourists practice tai chi by the Tower of Pisa and pose for photos in front of the Vatican. This People’s Xanadu provides a sort of canned Marco Polo experience—although its extravagantly costumed employees are themselves unable to travel. A planet without borders for a land without passports: The park’s attractions include a tour of a grounded jetliner. One scene, recalling the visit to the photographer’s studio in Sunrise, has Tao and Taisheng make a souvenir DV in which their images are matted into an imaginary magic-carpet ride. Tao is fascinated by a troupe of Russian dancers who seem less guest workers than slave laborers—they embody the exotic otherness that she enacts. (Over the course of the movie, she appears as a Hindu princess, a stewardess, an African, a geisha, and a Western bride.) Tao befriends one of the Russians; because they lack a common language, they each imagine the other to be free.

The World’s world has its share of scams and crimes, petty affairs and serious injuries. And yet all these plot developments feel curiously muted, even irrelevant. Has the melodrama been rendered absurd by the spectacle of young people quarreling in spangled Elizabethan doublets, or subdued by the seductive emptiness of China’s brave new World? The facade feels impervious, and this problematic is even built into the movie itself. The World may well be a sort of anti-infomercial for the World Park, but it celebrates the park nonetheless. As pointed out by Valerie Jaffee, a visiting scholar at the Beijing Film Academy, in an on-set report for the online journal Senses of Cinema, this critique of “sham cosmopolitanism” will be the movie that facilitates Jia’s transition from international film-festival star to domestic success.

Just as a stray watercooler blocks the view of the miniaturized Taj Mahal in one of The World’s picture-postcard panoramas, so documentary overshadows the movie’s narrative (while leaving an overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation). The exits are closed and time stands still. As in socialist realism, life has improved, comrades—which is to say that, in this materialized fantasy, the fake trumps the real. History, too, has been banished, personal and otherwise. The World Park’s mini-Manhattan, Taisheng proudly informs visiting homeboys, still has its Towers.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.