“The World” (Jia Zhangke, 2004) is a two-hour portrait of life at the Beijing World Park; a vast attraction on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, divided into continents with miniatures of major global landmarks and performances from each region. While the park is host to an influx of tourists, “The World” is a sprawling account of the enclosed lives of the staff – lives that scarcely venture beyond the boundaries of the park.
The World Park may proclaim to be a microcosm of the world, but in actuality, it’s not even a microcosm of China. The park’s staff is rather homogeneous in that they’re mostly working class youth who’ve relocated to Beijing from Chinese villages, drunk on the promise of urbanisation. It’s a classic predicament of a globalised world that really comes to light through the film’s tight, insular focus and glamour-eschewing art direction. Zhangke tinges the story with garish colours and harsh fluorescent light, and by primarily staging the film in the dingy, crowded staff quarters, the park is stripped of the grand aura it surely has in its visitors’ eyes, uncovering the cheap, fabricated essence that the staff encounter and help create every day.
The film starts with a strut before falling into a smooth, languorous rhythm. Tao (Tao Zhao), a young performer at the park, strolls through its dressing rooms, decked out in a bright green sari, gold nose chain, and bindhi, yelling for a band-aid. She’s clearly at ease amongst her co-workers, at home in the park, and it’s her story, intertwined with the stories of those around her, that Zhangke chooses to bring to the centre of the film.
Out of all her co-workers, it’s Tao who has seemingly made the most peace with life at the park. She lives there with no responsibilities other than providing for herself and no greater aspiration than to marry her boyfriend, Taisheng (Taishen Cheng), a security guard at the park who’s less faithful than he seems. She’s part of the “world”, but due to her lack of ambition, she is, to a great extent, removed from the state of economic coercion that defines the far less benign stories of those around her.
Globalisation’s seedy underbelly makes an overt appearance through the introduction of Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), a Russian performer at the park who despite the language barrier becomes fast friends with Tao. We’re first introduced to her as she hesitantly hands her passport over to the man that brought her to China, never to be seen again. As their friendship flourishes, signs of Anna’s distress come to light. Marks of abuse on her back, the way her sad eyes light up as she shows Tao a picture of her sons, her tears as she leaves the park to work as an escort in a desperate attempt to make enough money to escape. The two actresses play off of each other beautifully, bringing an undercurrent of raw empathy and understanding to their performances, even as each of them speaks in a language that the other clearly doesn’t understand.
This is just one of the many stories populating the movie, and which Zhangke balances masterfully. The pace of the film moves slow and steady, pulling you into its rhythm. And while the cast are clearly all victims of globalisation, the film has a certain lightness to its touch. This isn’t a tragedy, this is life as it is, with all its beauty and grimness intact. The film ends with the park in a state very similar to where it was when the film started. Some characters have moved on from the park, some have moved up in the system, and others have succumbed to the precarious conditions that plague the underprivileged of society. There’s no sentimentality to the film, though. As one character notes, there’s no shortage of people in China. The fallen are replaced by other cogs in the machine and “The World” goes on; business as usual.