Off the Queue: The World

May 26, 2006

I've had this movie on my Netflix queue since it was listed on Andrew O'Hehir's Beyond the Multiplex as one of his top ten picks for 2005. I was feeling like my cinematic horizons had shrunk and a top ten list of obscure foreign art films seemed like a pretty good one stop shopping cure. I felt extra legitimate when half of them came up as no release date set, but on the queue they went anyway. Over the past couple months they've started popping up.

So last week The World arrived in my mailbox. It's a Chinese film by Jia Zhangke. O'Hehir's review was a flat out rave so I had high hopes, but after I'd decoded the initial plot gimmick I spent about 45 minutes just wondering what was so great. I was just not connecting to these characters, and listening to all the Chinese being spoken was really freaking me out about my job prospects in the global economy. I don't think any of us are picking up that lingo any time soon.

The movie is about young employees at a Beijing theme park called The World, full of replicas of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline, the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. Very po-mo. There's a few different story lines going on and I'm not sure I've got all the name straight, but generally it focuses on a girl named Tao and her boyfriend (Taisheng? Liang? not sure which one was which). The majority of the park employees have moved to Beijing from the sticks. They know that this job is their toehold in city life and if they have any hope of moving up they've got to stick out the small apartments and hard beds. Basically the characters walk around the park in costum having mundane, realistic couple conversation or meet each other in small apartments to have mundane, realistic couple conversation. And every so often, it goes animated for a second, very stylized, like a kid's cartoon, and shows one of the characters getting a text message or flying away or riding a horse or something.

I was getting a little bored and wondering if I should turn it off for the night. Then, with one scene, it all started to sink in. For about the fifth time while Tao and her boyfriend were talking a jumbo jet, obviously a commercial flight, flew over their heads. I forget what they were talking about, but at one point Tao's boyfriend asked her what it was like to travel or something like that and she answered, "Who knows. I don't know anyone who's been on a plane." The accumulation of images of stunted travel began making sense, and the whimsical animated escapes did too. For the tourists paying to enter the park, it's easy to be swept into the simulation and suspend disbelief enough to believe they've actually seen a little bit of the world. So what if the Eiffel Tower is only one third the real size, so what if the Manhattan skyline is only 100 feet tall (it's still got something the real one doesn't–the towers), so what if the park includes a plane complete with fake stewardesses that will never leave the ground. But for these kids from the provinces, it's obvious day after day that the monorail that takes them from "continent" to "continent" is a closed circuit. Even when they take the park's magic carpet ride, all they do is sit on a bench while a camera operator superimposes their image on a rollicking animation of a carpet ride. There's plenty of ways to get around but no way out. It's the bittersweet cruelty of opportunity. Getting this far has made them more aware than ever of where they will never get to. Their relatives back home might not know what the Eiffel Tower is, but they also don't know they'll never see it.

All I'll say about the ending is that I didn't see it coming, but it makes sense. The characters find the only outs that life offers them, some of them happier than others.

Huh. Now I kind of think I want to watch it again tomorrow.

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