Why you should care

Jia Zhangke’s movie about fake monuments delivers real truths about modern-day China.

It’s a wonder he got away with it. In 2004, Jia Zhangke made his first state-approved movie after a five-year ban, a poignant drama called The World. Set in a Beijing theme park filled with absurd replicas of world monuments, it’s a fable of provincial young people trying to make a living there.

Why would Chinese officials approve a film about a lost generation, one for whom progress means the Pyrrhic victory of Western-style dead-end jobs? Chalk it up to Jia’s sly style. In one scene, a quietly surreal introduction to the place, the camera glides 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.”

The World secured Jia’s place in Chinese film history by staking a claim on its still-unfolding future…

Jia’s languorous pacing suggests the characters’ inertia but also focuses our perception. At first the actors seem stoic, but it’s precisely this approach that makes their performances so moving: Letting silences play is a way of making sure we listen.

The World secured Jia’s place in Chinese film history by staking a claim on its still-unfolding future, a topic he covered in later movies, most notably 2008’s 24 City, about the conversion of an old factory into a luxury condo complex. On one level, focusing on contemporary issues can be seen as a rebuke to the previous generation’s predilection for historical legend, just as his subtle send-up of a misguided tourist trap zeroes in on China’s hurried urbanization. Yet despite his obvious critique of prefab consumer culture, 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.

Maybe the officials who approved the movie knew what they were doing after all.

Watch the trailer for The World at Zeitgeist Films

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