Welcome to “The World” (Jia Zhang-Ke, 2004), one of the oddest and surely the longest cinematic experiences you may ever encounter. Shot in a documentary-inspired aesthetic, Jia’s film is about monotony of life and convenience and the burden of death and inconvenience. “The World” begins with a woman wearing a green, somewhat traditional Indian-looking dress and she walks through a backstage hallway asking if anyone has a band-aid. By the time she finds one for her ankle you have seen other people wearing gaudy period costumes from different cultures. This woman is Zhao XiaoTao (Zhao Tao) and will become the main character in “The World,” Jia’s “tribute” to the bizarreness of her place of employment. Tao and her boyfriend Chen TaiSheng (Chen Tai-Sheng) left their hometowns in rural China for Beijing to make a better life for themselves. They’ve been in the capital city of China for three years and both work at The World Park, a theme park that features near life-sized replicas of famous landmarks around the globe. The Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower (one-third the size of the real one), the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame, the Sphinx, Stonehenge, London Bridge, Big Ben, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Mouth of Truth, and a minimalistic Manhattan skyline (World Trade Center towers included) are among the sites representative of five continents.
It isn’t easy to get over the surrealistic, miniature-earth quality of this theme park. It takes up to an hour of the film’s 140 minute-long running time to do so and once you do, there isn’t much to watch. There are storylines to keep you relatively interested (Tao befriends a Russian performer even though they don’t speak the same language; TaiSheng’s side-job involves shady dealings; two of the company’s dancers have a stormy relationship), but like Jia’s other films, “The World” isn’t conducive to entertainment purposes. It is better suited for the ideological examination and deconstruction of the director’s style. The film’s narrative threads become more apparent but Jia’s framing tendencies (overwhelming lack of close-ups) and distant-sounding audio don’t make you feel like you’re watching a movie. The animated sequences that appear whenever someone sends or receives a text message are fantastic enough to draw your attention to the “movie-ness” of “The World,” and you wish that the entire film could’ve been a cartoon.
Jia’s film may not stimulate viewer pleasure, but it incites curiosity. The strangest part of “The World” is that the amusement park in which Tao and TaiSheng work isn’t a fake. There really is a World Park in Beijing where one can visit wonders of the planet without having to leave the city. How convenient. If you were to go to China, you could also go to Europe without actually going to Europe. How inconvenient for Jia Zhang-Ke. He has made a film that advertises the theme park more effectively than his movie’s own story.