Jia Zhangke’s The World takes place in a theme park a few miles outside of Beijing that includes scale models of many famous world landmarks, thus offering the natives an opportunity to “travel” without the pricey airfare or time commitment. The film invites us into the lives of two of its employees, Tao and Taisheng, both of whom have come from their villages in rural China to make something of their lives, and are now dating one another. One of the central questions the film raises regards the wisdom of such a choice, as the protagonists are constantly isolated and frustrated in their urban world, usually communicating more through text messages than in person. Are they better off than they had been?
The film’s opening scene is brilliant in implicitly bringing forward the film’s central concerns. It is a continuous shot of Tao walking down a plain, painted brick hallway backstage before her performance in a flashy dance number for the park’s customers. She is dressed in elegant robes, bejeweled, with her hair beautifully braided under a veil. One’s immediate impression would be to suspect she is some kind of royalty were it not for her surroundings – the aforementioned hall, filled with pipes running over a hard cement floor. The contrast between setting and costume raises implicit questions about the reality of Tao’s situation that are connected to the idea of the park itself: What are the results of this fake finery and scenery, both for Tao, and more broadly, for the Chinese people who participate in this as employees and paying customers?
Jia tips his hand even in this early scene, because as Tao walks the hall, she calls out for a band-aid, over and over and over again (so many times in fact that I suspect I figure I’ve got this Mandarin phrase down pat). We cannot see her wound (nor do we ever, it remains off camera), but she calls out anyway, each time receiving blank stares or a curt “no” from other performers in their dressing rooms. No one seems to be able to help Tao with her problem. While she eventually pesters someone into getting her a band-aid, the stage is set: this woman has a problem, and its solution is terribly difficult to come by.
The director’s stroke of genius is that through a detailed focus on the lives of Tao and Taisheng, he implicitly broadens the examination of this question throughout his film through various encounters the two protagonists have. It comes to include not only other poor villagers who come to work in the city, but also those rich businessmen who are also being changed by the opening of China to the rest of the world. Jia’s wide, long shots contribute to this poignant and dark vision of a new world.