It wasn’t until 2004 that China’s leading independent filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, came up from the underground, and into The World. This poignant fable about a Beijing theme park full of absurd replicas of world wonders was the first film Jia made with state approval after a five-year ban.
Like some Las Vegas stunt, the park is a real if improbable place, taking up more than a hundred acres. Jia populates his version with a lost generation of confusedly ambitious provincials, for whom progress means the pyrrhic victory of western-style dead-end jobs. In one scene, a quietly surreal introduction to the lay of the land, we glide past a fake Stonehenge, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower and St. Peter’s Square, then lands upon a fake Lower Manhattan – complete with World Trade Center. “The twin towers were bombed on September 11,” says a guide. “We still have them.” With the camera keeping some distance, alighting on individuals attentively but only temporarily, the monuments tend to diminish the people. Jia’s languorous pacing suggests the characters’ inertia but also focuses our perception. In this context it’s precisely for their apparent stoicism that the actors’ performances seem to contain so much: Letting silences play is a way of making sure we listen.
The World secured Jia’s place in the history of his homeland’s cinema by staking a claim on its still-unfolding future. He followed this film up with more dramatizations of China’s turbulent economic transition — most notably 2006’s Still Life, about a Yangtze River village slowly being flooded by the new Three Gorges Dam, and 2008’s 24 City, about the conversion of an old factory into a luxury condo complex. His decidedly contemporary concerns seem to rebuke the previous generation’s predilection for historical legend, just as his subtle sendup of a misguided tourist trap zeroes in on the folly of impatient futurism.
Yet despite the obvious critique of prefab consumer culture and state propaganda, Jia treats this place and its people with great sensitivity. In a canny way, he really is inviting meaningful contact between contemporary China and the rest of the world.