BLU-RAY The World
Jia Zhangke is a fascinating character within world cinema. A true cineaste, he was able to access films from both the East and West whilst studying at the Beijing Film Academy. Zhangke is an extremely prolific director – he has released eleven films in the last ten years. Following his first three feature films, which were made under the radar of the Chinese state, Zhangke gained state approval, and created The World.
The World is set within the walls of the Beijing World Park, where a replica of the Eiffel Tower – one third the size of the original – stands proudly next to replicas of world famous landmarks like London Bridge and Manhattan. The World follows the relationship between two people working in the Beijing World Park: a performer called Tao (Zhao Tao), and a security guard named Taisheng (Chen Taisheng).
Tao and Taisheng’s relationship becomes somewhat fraught after Tao’s ex-boyfriend returns from Ulan Batur. Taisheng becomes angry and disillusioned because Tao will not sleep with him. Elsewhere, Taisheng befriends a migrant worker, nicknamed Little Sister (because his mother had wished for a daughter), and attempts to find work in construction for him. Meanwhile, Tao befriends a Russian performer called Anna, who speaks no Chinese, whilst Tao speaks no Russian. Despite the language barrier, the two strike up an unlikely friendship…
Upon release, The World was seen as a shift from Zhangke’s earlier films. Zhangke’s first three films were made ‘underground’ – in that they were made without going through the Chinese government. His early films were well received outside of his native China, but pirate copies could only be found in China. The World was Zhangke’s first film that was made with approval from the Chinese government, and it was the first film made outside of his native Shanxi (although Zhangke still fits in a reference to Shanxi – the character Little Sister is a migrant from Shanxi). Detractors may say that by going legitimate, Zhangke would lose his integrity. However, Zhangke has said in interviews that his decision to legitimise his films is in order to overcome difficulties in screening in China and overseas. The World was well received in China, and in other territories.
The most striking aspect of The World is its cinematography. Beijing World Park is a fascinating subject, and Zhangke has photographed it beautifully. There are many shots where the camera captures a world landmark within the park, whilst just behind it the viewer can see the lights of Beijing just over the wall. The Blu-ray transfer of The World is crisp, and relatively clean, and absolutely does justice to Zhangke’s vision.
The two-and-a-half hours that the film takes to unravel can feel like a lot longer.
The camera drifts from character to character; at times, like a leaf caught in the wind. The plot is loose, to say the least, and it is easier to get caught up in the scenery more than the story. The style is somewhat reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker, in the way that the camera will follow one character for a while, and then if someone else is doing something more interesting – or if someone gets a text message from a character off screen – the camera will follow the other character.
It is fair to say that Zhangke is more interested in the social issues within the plot than the characters themselves. China is an ever-changing country – and whilst it was difficult in the past for Chinese nationals to obtain passports or travel outside of China (things that a lot of Europeans and Americans would take for granted), it has become a lot easier. The workers in Beijing World Park cannot afford passports, or to travel abroad. In one scene, the Russian performer, Anna, admits that she will have to prostitute herself in order to afford a plane ticket to Ulan Batur to visit her sister. In another scene, the viewer is introduced to one of the attractions in the Beijing World Park – a decommissioned passenger jet. One of the characters explains that it is there so that the visitors can see for themselves what it is like to travel onboard a plane.
The World’s one major flaw is that it is overly long. No-one can fault Zhangke for making his first legitimate film (in the eyes of the Chinese government) an ambitious one, but due to his meandering style, the two-and-a-half hours that the film takes to unravel can feel like a lot longer. Unless the viewer is completely wrapped up in the film, it is easy to become restless.
Eureka’s Master of Cinema collection is known for being lovingly put together, and The World is no exception. The Blu-ray transfer has excellent audio and video, and there are enough extras to answer any questions that a viewer might ever want to ask about the film – featuring interviews, a lengthy making of documentary, a forty page booklet, including essays about the film, and a DVD edition of The World. However, if you have the technology, the Blu-ray edition of The World is the quintessential one.
Jia Zhangke’s first foray into government approved cinema is still as bold as his earlier work, and meant that his oeuvre was available to far wider audience. The World is a melancholic film, albeit a very beautifully shot one. If the viewer has the patience to sit through what can feel like a very lengthy film, at times, it is ultimately a rewarding one.
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