Both in 2000’s Platform and 2002’s Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhang-ke’s characters look to break free of insular communities. Certainly there’s no more haunting image from Unknown Pleasures than the sight of a young man’s motorcycle breaking down just outside the border of the film’s ghost town, where people trade in pop-cultural parts from the outside world. In The World, the village is now global but it’s still insular. The film’s World Park is a Sino Disney that brings the world to people who can’t (or won’t) see it on their own, embodying the angst and confusion of a generation of Chinese youth. It’s there that both tourists and workers alike trade in facsimiles of foreign goods: from the simulations of world wonders to the designer clothes one female character replicates outside of work.
This amusement park is a place that promises “a new world every day,” except Zhang-ke blurs space and evokes redundant moments to suggest that every day is more or less the same. Cultures bleed together inside World Park in ways that obscure identity and impact personal disconnects and Zhang-ke seemingly wonders throughout: How does someone carve an individual sense of self in the middle of this mess? It’s an emotional conundrum inspired throughout, nowhere funnier than when the film’s two leads, Tao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), are greenscreened onto a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower while riding a magic carpet—a ludicrous multi-culti day drip scored to a cheesy, barely discernable keyboard rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”
World Park is less crossroads of the world than land of confusion, and it’s there that Zhang-ke’s characters struggle to connect to one another and salve their loneliness, but because everyone threatens to leave this ridiculous global village once they discover it’s farce, they all keep each other at arm’s length. The ongoing navel-gazing of Zhang-ke’s films is tolerable only because his characters seem to be moving in positive directions. In The World, Tao becomes friends with a Russian woman who comes to work at the theme park. Neither woman speaks the other’s language, but they still manage to communicate. Their unpretentious global communication is Zhang-ke’s show of force. The film’s character may not know where to go, but when the teary-eyed Russian leaves the amusement park for a better world, her departure suggests that there are options, some sadder than others, still available.