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Jia Zhang-ke’s new masterpiece "The World" reveals the cultural and emotional consequences of China’s hypocritical stances on globalizations.
My tour guide in Shanghai last summer prided herself in having graduated from one of China’s institutes of tourism, where students accumulate impressive factoids about Chinese culture and history, and learn how to interact with domestic and foreign travelers. A quick Google search alerted me to the website of one such institution (www.glit.edu/cn/english/index.htm), where disciplines such as tourism management, culinary art, foreign languages, and hotel management are taught in addition to the basic tour guide service. Intensifying government enthusiasm for such programs is, of course, partly a result of Beijing’s long interest in hosting the Olympic Games, but this trend in presenting modern China to the rest of the world, as well as to its privileged inhabitants, has existed since the beginning of economic reforms in the '80s.
Much of this energy has been aimed at hiding human rights violations and poverty behind a luster of modernity and capitalism. To a disturbing extent, this strategy has worked, as countries like the United States maintain their economic ties with China, and the transnational city of Shanghai has evolved into a utopia of foreign designer labels and a paradise of global architecture; all the while mine shaft deaths and air pollution levels accumulate to a general disinterest from prospective businessmen and tourists from around the globe. While institutes of tourism are not specific to China, its presence in the mainland is especially unfortunate. During my tour of Suzhou, I couldn’t help but be impressed by my tour guide’s impressive knowledge and enthusiasm about the region. Yet the tragedy is that this knowledge of history and art is now fostered as an economic and political commodity, rather than the cultural bedrock of future generations.
One of Beijing’s more egregious tourist sites is World Park (motto: “visit the world without leaving Beijing”), where miniature landmarks like the Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower are presented as substitutes to the real thing. The philosophical repercussions of such a collection of illusions are obvious: by disassociating cultural objects from their historical and geographic contexts to be displayed gratuitously as “fakes”, yet appreciated as “realistic,” creates for the visitor a false impression of the world that is at best ridiculous and at worst a potemkin village of global harmony.
That foreign visitors are duped by such a presentation is unfortunate but acceptable; that inhabitants from throughout China fight for jobs at World Park as dancers or security guards -- as depicted in Jia Zhang-ke’s towering new masterpiece The World -- is one of the cultural tragedies of Chinese globalization: a globalization that is a presentation to the world, as well as a sort of multi-faceted mass-deception, where human rights violations are masked by the sparkle of multi-ethnic costumes while Chinese workers are driven to a false sense of a world they could never actually visit.
Such a perception of the world is illuminated by an odd scene in which a worker shows his friend around the park. On this informal tour is a replica of Manhattan. “This is America,” the worker says. “Even though the twin towers fell on September 11, we still have them.” In these few words, Jia captures the park’s odd sense of pride in commoditized reality which seems completely oblivious to real world events and struggles. The tragedy is that the worker is led to believe in his words, because without a passport or access to free journalism, he has no reason but to accept what delusions he is given. Related to this indirect understanding of the world is the way the characters’ perceptions of cultural landmarks are mediated by film and other cultural forms. For example, the park boasts a replica of La Bocca Della Verit, and we see in Jia’s film tourists who stick their hands in the sculpture’s mouth, mimicking Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. It’s hard for us to imagine any other reason for this landmark to exist in World Park except as a cinematic landmark, and the park seems to be playing off of fantasies of the world based on Hollywood films. “I’ve seen this at the movies,” remarks one visitor while touring the miniatures.
The World, however, is more than a critique of the theme park, but a document of its workers and their relationships to the world. The lead character Tao, played by Jia regular Zhao Tao, is an all-purpose dancer -- depending on the ethnicity of her assigned performance -- who travels to “India” on a monorail while chatting with a co-worker on a cell phone. She slips from one costume to another without much thought (the closest to problematizing the phoniness of it all is when she wonders if it’s weird that she’s an Asian dressed up as African) in an extraordinary backstage dressing room that exposes the park’s constructedness, as well as the desires and interactions of the workers, illustrated most strikingly by the impressive Steadicam long take that begins the film.
Later in the film, Tao befriends a Russian dancer working at the theme park, and because they don’t share a common language, both seem oblivious to the other’s social situation. While the Russian woman explains to Tao that she will soon have to relocate again due to economic difficulty, Tao says “I envy you. You have freedom. You can leave the country.” The irony is that both residents of post-socialist countries don’t realize how hard it is for the other. Tao’s statement is particularly revealing because while she wrongly assumes the Russian woman is free in the utopia of globalization as presented by World Park, she seems to be completely aware of her own confinement in a country that celebrates globalization to the rest of the world, while restricting it for its own inhabitants. In fact, throughout the film, passports are used as tools for manipulation and patriarchal control rather than gateways to the world, as when a rich patron attempts to get Tao a fake passport to woo her away to Hong Kong. Or when the Russian woman has her passport taken away from her by her manager, who claims he is protecting her from Chinese thieves.
We get a similar feeling that globalization is just an illusion, from the story of a Wenzhou fashion designer of knock-off merchandise. To Taisheng, a security guard at World Park, she relays the story of her husband who illegally stowed away to France, and who may or may not be still alive. Since she is into fashion, Taisheng is not surprised when she tells him of her dream of visiting France. To which Taisheng responds in disgust, since, according to Taisheng, everything France has, she can find at World Park. She responds by saying that World Park doesn’t have Paris’s Chinatown, which is at once a criticism of the kind of “authenticity” World Park seeks, as well as a reference to her husband who may have settled in that neighborhood.
Jia Zhang-ke has commented that the structure of his film is modeled off of his experiences collecting information on the internet. Part-way through the film he even superimposes the theme park’s web address, which I hope becomes an actual link on the DVD. More importantly, rather than a cohesive single narrative, Jia prefers multiple stories so that we are invited to make conclusions based on various incomplete stories, as we would doing online research. This style certainly also reflects Jia’s interest in cultures marginalized by official discourses, so that since a single dominant narrative would reinforce hegemony of the state, multiple strands would allow for alternative voices.
An irony then is that The World is Jia’s first government-recognized film, which if anything represents the government’s loosening of censorship regulations rather than Jia’s “selling-out.” The World is definitely more accessible and fast-paced compared to his previous three films, Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures, yet not a drop of intellectual and radical rigor is sacrificed in the process. As in all of his films, musical performance is deconstructed. In Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, karaoke becomes a means for characters to gain rare moments of expression, no matter how trivial. In Platform, the impulse to perform evolves from Cultural Revolution propaganda programs to '80s pop-rock under the hilarious moniker “All-Stars Rock ‘n Breakdance Electronic Band.” In The World, the theme park’s song and dances are rendered as ridiculous, yet they provide some of the film’s most breathtaking moments, as if Jia sees in the government’s cultural apparatus opportunities for resistance and expression, perfectly capturing Jia’s astounding political and aesthetic achievement in spite of the support of the state.
Date Posted: 2/17/2005