Like Jia Zhangke's previous features Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures, his latest, The World, is populated by young people on the far side of Mao's "cultural revolution," now so accustomed to Western materialism that they rarely notice its effects. Most of the characters in The World work at Beijing's EPCOT-like World Park, surrounded by replicas of the Great Pyramids and the Golden Gate Bridge. Off work, they live in virtual squalor, crammed into apartments in the industrial quarter, where they wash out their uniforms in dank public bathrooms. When a jet roars overhead, one remarks that she "doesn't know anybody who's ever been on a plane," and when one of the park's dancers gets married, her colleagues raise an ironic toast to "world peace, women's rights, and faces without freckles."
Jia spends much of The World on an irony-hunt. Long a devotee of extended takes at medium distances, he has the World Park's miniature landmarks and artificial environments to work with. At one point, a guard shows off the park's mini-Manhattan to a visiting relative, saying, "The Twin Towers were bombed on Sept. 11, but we still have them." Later, after a dancer notes that it hasn't snowed all winter, she takes the stage to a shower of phony white powder. Jia enhances his poly-global fantasy with animated interludes and dance sequences that run the gamut from traditional pageantry to sexy grinding.
But the setpieces and visual grace notes don't support a compelling story. The World's dull weave of frustrated romances and worker exploitation is far too obvious, and Jia can only relieve the tedium so many times with lines like "There's the London Bridge I was telling you about." He doesn't do nearly enough with the multicultural atmosphere of modern Beijing, or the different ethnic roles of the World Park. So one man wears an earring "just like on TV," and one group of women has a Titanic poster on their wall... so what?
The truer social comments in The World are subtler, like Jia's depiction of a designer knockoff sweatshop cluttered with decidedly non-Asian mannequins and fashion-magazine layouts, and like the scene where a tourist admires how much the World Park's Eiffel Tower "looks like the real one," before admitting that he's never been to Paris. That's one condition of modern life that Jia gets exactly right: the way that so many people assume they know a culture because they've seen the pictures.