#70 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
"It's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small, small, small, small world...""The world" of this film’s title is a theme park which combines a lushly wooded landscape with reproductions of international monuments: a towering yet smaller-than-normal Eiffel Tower which looms over the whole park like a panopticon, a small set of the New York skyline which still includes the World Trade Center, a bite-size Leaning Tower of Pisa which perpetually invites tourists to stand twenty feet in front of it with their hand out so that photographic "tricks" can make them appear to be holding it up. (Director Zhang Ke Jia always shoots these particular tourists from the side, so that the absurd artificiality of their gesture is highlighted.) This demi-monde, further dislocated by being placed in Beijing instead of the American setting (say, World Showcase in Disney World, or else any number of miniature golf courses) where we might expect it, is fascinating enough to sustain the film even if there isn’t a plot. Which, at first glance, there isn’t, really. Still, a story of sorts develops over the course of the film, or rather several stories, glimpses into characters' lives which remind us how vast and implacable is the real world outside the bounds of our dreamlike global village.
Of course, from the very first scene - in which Tao (Tao Zhao), dressed as a princess, marches through a maze of backstage corridors, darting into dressing rooms and bustling prop barns, loudly demanding a band-aid - we are keyed into the workaday world underpinning the artifice. At no point are we allowed to experience unfiltered fantasy the way the park's visitors presumably do: then again, we don't see many visitors at all, perhaps because it's the winter season. At the same time, there's an air of magic, a sense of dreamy yearning which suffuses the struggling park employees, as they work, romance, and otherwise struggle. There are even whimsical animated sequences dotting the movie, usually spurred by a particularly potent text message, and during the live-action Zhang's camera is unbound by the same restrictions as the characters - it floats on some occasions, patiently fixes its gaze in others, allows certain characters to leave the scene and focuses its attention on others. Just as the monorail whisks us from "continent" to "continent" in the World theme park, so the storytelling here transports us gracefully from character to character. Multiple stories unfold, and there is a sense of the omniscient about Zhang's vision; yet it is never so omniscient as to distance us from the characters altogether.
One of the most heartbreaking sequences occurs about two-thirds of the way into the movie - so far we've experienced jealousy, sorrow, frustration, loneliness, as well as moments of fleeting joy and an ever-present romantic alertness. Yet, while not cold, the film has been somewhat muted. These are subtle emotions, and necessarily conditioned by the demands of the characters' lives: though one character (described by an otherwise hostile IMDb commentator as "the guy with the cool nose") will eventually light himself on fire, most of the time professional demands and financial concerns mitigate any opportunities for melodramatic expression. The relevant scene begins with a note of excitement: the characters are having a party at a karaoke bar, and it seems a chance to let their hair down and relax. But when Tao goes the bathroom, patiently waiting to use a sink while a hooker pukes into the drain, she runs into a friend from the park, a Russian immigrant - almost certainly illegal - named Anna (Alla Shcherbakova). Anna and Tao connected despite their language barrier, drinking and "talking", communing by spirit if not by tongue. (Omniscient as ever, Zhang allows us to hear, or rather read, Anna's dialogue even though Tao cannot understand it.) Already, when a jacket fell from Anna's shoulders, Tao gently replaced it to cover up the scars across the Russians' back; later, Anna explains - in Russian of course - that she must leave the park because she's found another job.
Now we realize what that other job was - Anna has clearly become a prostitute at this club (earlier, she resisted handing her passport over to a sleazy handler/smuggler, but eventually caved in; now the Russian is probably trapped). She tries to exchange a few "lost in translation" banalities with her former co-worker, but Tao bursts into tears (she's already frazzled after her boyfriend's hoodlum associate aggressively hit on her). Anna embraces her and weeps as well - suddenly all the buried feelings burst through the restrained, calm, sad but stoic surface of the movie. Anna dries her eyes, says "You already know," and leaves Tao behind in the restroom - the whole interaction probably lasts about twenty seconds. But it's absolutely devastating, a moment of authentic pain. The speed with which it unfolds only compounds this ache, as if the characters are being pulled and propelled so rapidly and helplessly that even their outbursts rush by like the scenery outside that monorail window. But they are no less deeply-felt for being so quick - instead it's as if we're glimpsing thousands of worlds, each of which could be explored endlessly given the proper time.
Indeed, the guiding spirit of the film is explorative rather than expositional even as the characters are bombarded with pressures and events (to say the film does not have an overarching narrative is not to suggest its drama is not packed; much happens in its two and a half hours). This is a trait I've noticed in many of the Asian films I've watched for this series - while many acclaimed Western movies have focused their iconography and minimized their approach, the Eastern cinema opens wider and wider - through the stories, through the visual approaches, through the rich associations one can draw from what one sees and hears. The theme park itself is a vibrant metaphor which can suggest any number of things: a projection of the characters' restless imaginations and ambitions, an attempt of Chinese culture to find its place in a wider (and mostly Western) context, a contradictory counterexample to the functional and stifling (yet also often deeply beautiful) Beijing outside its bounds. Most of all, however, it is a playground for Zhang to investigate, reveal, and observe, in conjunction with his characters and sometimes on his own. There's much more that could be said, but ultimately this is a film meant to be explored rather than explained, and I highly encourage you to pay a visit. This is not a small world at all, and it's all the richer for it.
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Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark