Criterion Prediction #254: The World, by Alexander Miller
Title: The World
Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Jue Jing, Cheng Taishen, Jiang Zhong-Wei
Synopsis: Tao, a young dancer, and her security guard boyfriend, Taisheng, both work at the unusual international mishmash called Beijing’s World Park. An amalgam of the World’s landmarks and wonders are recreated and scaled into exhibits; the park hosts the great pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and Michelangelo’s David. Beyond the sights and sounds, the staff’s lives are going on as they are lost in a modern world within a world.
Critique: The concept of The World so perfectly suits the director’s modus operandi you’d think that he conceived the Beijing World Park just for the film. The cultural cross-section, the targeted artificiality, the capital implications, the microcosm factor, and most importantly (considering the directors recurring criticism of mainland China’s politics) the haughty attitude and social arrogance encapsulated by Beijing’s World Park. The dwarfing and isolation of people against the shadow of tremendous progress is one of the central pulls in Zhangke’s cinema. So what better serves this ideal than a miniaturized world theme park?
His concern is, as always, quietly authentic. The institutions that fall under his scrutinous lens are observed rather than condemned. By 2004, Jia was thoroughly coming into his own after the provincially set, informal trilogy Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. As these films chart China’s transitional millennial period, The World parallels Jia’s evolution, veering into the more mainstream arena and being the first film that was shot outside his native Shanxi province. It’s evident that Zhangke identifies with Zhao and Taishan, who are both enamored with and scared by their surroundings; it’s not just the World Park but the immensity of Beijing. And in the tradition or artistic evolution, Zhangke transitions with aesthetic aplomb, broadening his expression range with more elaborate use of music, incorporating animation while retaining the intuitive and lively cinematography. The digital camera work dates the material with remarkable inflection; the early tech boom of the 21st century, the proliferation of cell phones, it doesn’t feel like a condemnation of millennial dissatisfaction but a poignant observation. The World stands as one of the essential films of Jia’s career and he continues to elaborate on his vision with Mountains May Depart and his most recent, Ash is Purest White.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: This is not the first time Jia has appeared here and it probably won’t be the last. The fact that both Unknown Pleasures and The World are featured on Criterion’s streaming service (looking sharper than ever) is a good sign that they’re in line for a spine number. Even more importantly, the latter is available on Region B Blu-ray via the Master of Cinema series, another boutique label which is very much the UK’s answer to the Criterion Collection and whose library has been a crystal ball foreshadowing many potential Criterion releases.