The World is a well made, compassionate and ultimately tragic Chinese film that few people saw last year. Directed by Zhangke Jia it is primarily about a group of performers who dance and perform in a park called the Beijing World Park.
The park features scaled-down replicas of such landmarks as The Eiffel Tower, The Taj Majal, St Mark's Square, The London Bridge and even downtown Manhattan. At first it is amusing to see all the sites so close to one another; the Pyramids are adjacent to Taj Majal and Manhattan is a stone's throw from London. Yet as the film goes on it becomes apparent that the park is an odd and somewhat disquieting place. It becomes purposely central to the film's somewhat depressed and empty feeling.
Each of the characters is in conflict with each other or with their fate. There is a twenty-something woman dancer named Tao (Zhao Tao) who cannot decide if she loves her boyfriend Taisheng [Chen Tai-sheng) - who is a security guard in the park. There is a couple that always fights yet realize that they cannot live without one another. And there is a group of Russian immigrants who have become virtual slaves to a man who has taken their passports.
From the plot alone one would suspect a soap opera of sorts. But director Jia utilizes a very slow, distancing, yet unmanipulative style that has each storyline crisscrossing the other. In many ways his style is one that has come to associate with some of the better art house directors working in Asia these days such as Korean director Hong Sang-soo or Taiwan's Hsiao-hsien Hou and Ming-liang Tsai. And like those directors the primary theme in these films is about alienation that comes with capitalism's tyranny of choice.
The lonely characters wander through a world of kitch, bright lights, color, fancy facades and hip sounds. Yet it is not only the park's odd qualities that make for an interesting juxtaposition. It is also the real world and globalization in general that director Zhangke is commenting on.
Tao befriends one of the Russian women early on and even though they don't speak the same language they are able to communicate. They understand each others plight and a friendship develops between them. This idea of many people coming together is one of the film's themes. Everyone is working together in this 'world' and yet by doing so they lose a bit of themselves and their culture and identity.
The cinematography is excellent and Jia's framing is impeccable. Whether he is doing a tracking shot – like the one that opens the film - or keeping the camera still and focused on one subject for a long time he shows a masterful hand. Jia also has a playful, colorful side he utilizes with animation, which pops up each time someone's cell phone rings.
As the film goes on it becomes apparent that the main story is between Tao and Taisheng both of whom realize that in order to escape the world around them they may have to escape the world all together.
The DVD is presented in 2.35:1 and compatible to 16:9 screens. It looks sharp and the colors are strong. The film was shot in HiDef and transferred to film. There is only slight compression artifact noticeable on some slow tracking shots but otherwise the image looks good.
Audio is in stereo. Dialogue is in Mandarin and Shanxi dialect with English subtitles. There is a good techno score that booms through the film every so often that helps give the film a feeling of distance and importance.
There is an Video interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum that lasts less than two minutes. It's not much of an extra and considering that Rosenbaum is an articulate film critic [who loves the film] it would have been nice to have him talk for at least five minutes. There is also a photo gallery with 30 stills that include some images not in the film. There are also Production notes by director Zhangke Jia, Character sketches and an essay on the real World Park. Last is Original theatrical trailer.
The World is a very good Chinese film that is less plot driven than mood and theme driven. Always beautiful to look at the film is a strong art house film that may not satisfy every Chinese film fan but it is worth a look. The DVD has modest extras.