The World: Artificial Happiness

“America has lost her Twin Towers, but we still have ours.” 

I always found theme parks to be depressing. I love them, don’t get me wrong, I can’t get high off alcohol but I can get high off an $80 roller coaster ride I queued two hours for, but after your initial giddiness wears off, you go home, take off your shoes, and you go to work the next day. Theme parks are essentially micro-societies that artificially replicate the human experience of joy. There is a sick irony beneath all the makeup, forced smiles, and phony laughter, when you realise that the mascots are not really Cinderella or Goofy, they end their shifts just like everyone else and repeat the same lifestyle the very next day.

The title of Jia Zhang-ke’s 2004 masterpiece, The World, is an ironic pun and a metaphor. Jia spends much of The World on an irony-hunt. His “happiness” lies in the World Park’s miniature landmarks and mock environments that people come to find joy, but strip by strip layers are peeled away, revealing a dancer who takes to the stage in a shower of phony white powder after noting that it hasn’t snowed all winter, workers fighting against the pyramids of Egypt, and the uniformly seedy, congested and bunkerlike backstage spaces where the characters live after stepping down from their shiny stages. Jia enhances his poly-global fantasy with animated interludes and dance sequences that ranges from traditional pageantry to sexy grinding. In one scene, 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.

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THE YOUNG

The youth in the film portray an essential symbol of the alienation among the youth in contemporary China at that time. The desire the characters had to let go of everything and just be happy was palpable but Jia Zhangke makes sure the characters never actually go anywhere, masking the way they really feel inside with smiles on the outside. This is the realest depiction of what any youth around the world feels.

There is a palpable message Jia wants to send to the viewer but he never provides an example. He does not seem optimistic about the future of his characters and does not offer the viewer even a glimpse of an alternative lifestyle where his characters may end up happy one day.

WORKER EXPLOITATION, CAPITALISM, & HUMAN RELATIONS.

It is interesting to see what happens to human interaction when Jia shows us a world where so much is built on artificiality and lies. Human relations are bound to be unstable. Taisheng starts cheating on Tao,  whose husband illegally emigrated to Paris eight years earlier. A karoake bash, the most glamorous party Tao attends, turns out to be a prostitution gateway. When Tao finds Anna there she was conned out of her passport to make her more exploitable – and they cry together, their sobs of mutual sympathy and sorror tell us everything we need to know. The only grief we see is when a company pays off a family whose son has died in an industrial accident. Both examples of transactions of cash for flesh summarize the film’s negative connotations on China’s capitalism.

On the conditions and deaths of workers, Director Jia says, “The modernization in China brings a great many people from the provinces to work in the big cities. They sacrifice their lives in the service of this “modernization” in the great cities, which benefits other people. This is why this concerns me.”

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THE POIGNANT USE OF TECHNOLOGY

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Some parts of the film are cartoon adventures of the character’s desires for freedom and flying – personal fantasies in an environment which doesn’t allow them, from personal text messages sent via cell phones. According to the New York Times, over a quarter of China’s 1.3 billion people own cell phones. Jia Zhangke has made a very important film that highlights the cons of modern technology removing human feelings and interaction. The controversy Zhangke had faced for his socio-political take on films was undeserving for he had been mocked for trying to become too much like the modern West. Jia made a strong statement in expressing the developing technologies the West embraces and their “Hollywood style romance” in this film. Jia Zhangke has expressed that China is obssessed with the culture of the West, and in Negotiating Global/Local Identities: Jia Zhang-ke’s The World, the film is proof on Jia’s concern on China’s erasure on their cultural identity and their desire to immerse themselves in international culture, seemingly the West. In this film, he articulates the country is not quite content with itself through the repetitive daily lives of the characters in The World, where they seem to know they are trapped in a world where globalization is taking over and change is inevitable.

The controversy Zhangke had faced for his socio-political take on films was undeserving for he had been mocked for trying to become too much like the modern West. Jia made a strong statement in expressing the developing technologies the West embraces and their “Hollywood style romance” in this film. Jia Zhangke has expressed that he sees no real improvements in China at the present. In this film, he articulates the country is not quite content with itself through the repetitive daily lives of the characters in The World, where they seem to know they are trapped in a world where globalization is taking over and change is inevitable.

APPRECIATIVE NOTES

The World is visually entrancing. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, verging more towards a documentary on everyday people. The mise-en-scene was always well set, the color palette as bleak as the film’s message, and the animated sequences evoked an indefinable feeling in me, the audience. The shots from the top of buildings looking down on the big monuments evoked a sense of isolation and loneliness.

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One thought on “The World: Artificial Happiness

  1. I really liked the title of this review. The world truly is an amusement park filled with artificial happiness. It is artificial in terms of the mock monuments as well as the seemingly happy workers that are struggling to earn a living whilst living in horrible conditions.

    It is interesting how “The World” is set in this tiny area of China and its workers all donning clothing of varying countries but are all in fact Chinese. It does point to this odd phenomenon in China, where what is western is better. Something that I believe Director Jia is trying to highlight.

    Like you, I enjoyed the cinematography of the film. It is a breath of fresh air that is hard to come by in films today.

    Looking forward to your next review!

    Like

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