Monday, March 01, 2010

Jia Zhangke at MoMA: The World

If you want to talk about globalization in China, Jia Zhangke is your filmmaker. He has specialized in dramatizing the societal impact of china’s radical change of course, from top-down state planning to more market-driven policies designed to make China an economic super-power. Leaving behind his hometown setting of Fenyang, Jia found the perfect physical manifestation of the tension between China’s globalization and its rigid social controls in Beijing World Park, the theme park known for its recreations of famous landmarks. The park’s employees see the Eiffel Tower and the Tower of Pisa every day, yet they lack both the means and the freedom to travel themselves in The World (trailer here), which opens MoMA’s retrospective of the director’s films this Friday.

There is definitely something surreal about World Park in a Vegas kind of way. It even features a troupe of showgirls performing dance numbers ostensibly based on world cultures. It is not exactly the superstardom Tao dreamed of when she came to Beijing from the provinces, but it is a job. Her boyfriend Taisheng also works at the park as a security guard and shuttle driver. While they spend most of their time amid the gaudy splendor of the park, they still live mean and desperate lives.

Tragedy and romantic strife are no strangers to park employees, most definitely including Tao and Taisheng. However, the bickering of their amorously linked co-workers Wei and Niu far exceeds their own. Is it possible to find happiness in the park? Well, in Jia’s vision, it is a lot like finding it in real life, except more so.

The World is an outstanding film, but it requires viewers to synch-up with Jia’s cinematic aesthetic. He presents the world of The World from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, never really letting us into his characters’ inner psyches. All we know of them in psychological terms comes from what we are able to pick up along the way (which is not inconsiderable).

In a touching and ever so real performance, the lovely Zhao Tao is absolutely fantastic as Tao. However, her most effecting scenes are not with Chen Taishen’s Taisheng, but with Alla Chtcherbakova as Anna, a Russian dancer who befriends Tao, despite their lack of a common language.

Jia’s fourth film is a departure in more ways than one. Not only is it not based in his native Fenyang, it was also his first film produced with the approval of the Chinese government. While Jia’s films have always been marked by his naturalistic Vérité sensibility, The World seems hyper-real. It characters are often dwarfed by outlandish backdrops of the counterfeit wonders of the world. Indeed, the visuals are often quite dramatic, given a glossy sheen by cinematographer Yu Likwai. Lim Giong’s ethereal electronic soundtrack also heightens the otherworldly vibe, and the sense of alienation by extension. Jia even allows brief fantastical intrusions, like the short animated interludes that symbolically accompany the characters’ text messaging.

The World is a great film and a fitting kick-off to the MoMA’s retrospective, but it is not those with the short attention span Avatar crowd. It is sad and demanding, but also beautiful, offering rich rewards for those that can appreciate them. It screens at MoMA on Friday (3/5) and Sunday (3/14) with Jia and Zhao in attendance for the opening night of his retrospective.