(2004) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
I’ve been developing an appreciation for director Zhang Ke Jia’s films this year, starting with Unknown Pleasures (2002) and more recently with Still Life (2006), but it wasn’t until I saw this film, The World, that I think I have fully crystalized my appreciation of his work.
Zhang Ke Jia is considered part of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, noted for a somewhat neo-realist feel or cinéma vérité, using many non-actors, shooting on digital, and shooting with long takes. I can’t fully say since I haven’t seen the films of the other directors, though all of those characteristics can be applied to Zhang’s films.
The World, as I understand it, was his only big budget production, shot on location in Beijing’s The World amusement park, a park that promises that you can see all the world without leaving Beijing. And it features a 1/3-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, areas with Manhattan, the Giza pyramids, Big Ben, and lots of others. And the story, a somewhat meandering semi-melodrama about two park workers, who are in a relationship, is set amidst and in contrast to this world within the world, this world of replicas, of Capitalism, of pretense and show.
While Zhang employs a lot of non-actors, sometimes more obviously, in his films, all three of his films have also starred Zhao Tao, his female protagonist in each film, here the costume-changing performer, who moves from culture to culture in the shows and roles she plays in the park throughout the film. Her boyfriend, who moved up with her from the villages, begins the film as a security guard, but shifts into the black market underground evolving into something different.
Much of the contrasts and representations are easy to see: many scenes, both significant and more extraneous, play out against the backgrounds of these iconic grand cultural wonders. The characters are small against them, even the shrunken versions of the world’s treasures. Many long to travel, many can’t imagine leaving, as their dramas are enacted within this strange and ironic place.
Zhang Ke Jia clearly saw what kind of potential he could evoke from these images, from these narratives. His critiques on culture and identity in the changing face of China are both broad and subtle. But what really, really blew my mind was the cinematography and visual compositions. His handling of the camera is masterful. Some scenes play out in quite long takes, with the camera purposefully moving around the scene in a quiet, yet omniscient fashion, but always caputuring the important images, tracking up to the image into some beautiful ways.
This film is much more than the description that I give it here. It has all this aesthetic and cultural commentary, a compelling narrative with good and meaningful characters, and in a sense, an epic breadth of types. But this film, which I also think is his most accessible that I have seen, is also just simply a thing of greatness.