The World Movie Review
This time around, Zhang has created a long and free-floating visit inside the walls of Beijing World Park, a sort of low-rent EPCOT that features small-scale replicas of the world's great sites -- the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, complete with World Trade Center -- and offers its visitors the chance to "see the world without leaving Beijing," a particularly cruel fate from his point of view.
In the tunnels and dressing rooms below the park we meet Tao (Zhao Tao), a lively and beautiful young woman who works as a dancer and hostess at the park, her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard, and their large circle of co-workers, most of whom rush around in lavish costumes as they stage one Vegas-like spectacle after another. World Park is their world. They seem to work constantly, and they live in shabby dorms nearby.
Though the on-and-off romance of Tao and Taisheng provides the main narrative thread, the film wanders off to show us snippets of the lives of other park workers along with some Russian guest workers (whose passports are taken by their manager when they arrive, their wings effectively clipped) and a group of peasants from the countryside, friends of Taisheng who have arrived to look for jobs in the dangerous construction industry. To them, a security guard job in a theme park would be heaven on earth. When Taisheng meets another woman, it turns out she runs a counterfeit fashion business, obsessing over the quality of her fake DKNY labels.
This is Zhang's bleak vision of China, a chaotic, corrupt, and constantly humming hive where everyone is trapped in meaningless jobs and on the prowl for ways to make a few more yuan. There's clearly no escape. The constant reminders of world travel scattered around the park simply taunt those who work there and who dress up in foreign costumes day after day. Tao is thrilled to have a look at her friend's new passport, but she giggles, "I don't understand it." In a particularly heavy-handed moment, Zhang has her working as an ersatz flight attendant in an airliner that's permanently parked at the park. Get it? This plane will never take off.
All their work adds up to nothing, but from Zhang's point of view it's a particularly cruel state of affairs because the work is in the service of an emerging upper class who are cashing in. There's no Mao-like ideology behind it, no rising tide that's supposed to lift all the boats. Yes, tens of millions may be making their way into the new middle class, but hundreds of millions aren't, and won't.
As The World enters its third hour, the oppression is palpable. You feel like you'll never get past the monorail that slowly circles (or should I say fences in) the entire park. Tao and Taisheng spin their wheels and ponder marriage, but neither one can really see the point of it. What would it gain them? Terrible things happen to many of their friends and co-workers, and even if you root hard for Tao to achieve some kind of deliverance, you know deep down that the only Eiffel Tower she'll ever see is the one-third scale tower that looms ominously over World Park.
It's a long World after all.