Jia Zhangke’s The World emphasizes themes of hypocrisy, irony, and internal conflict in a Beijing theme park where several rural and foreign blue-collar workers grapple with the realities of adjusting to a rapidly urbanizing, globalized environment. While I hesitate to label the film as anything other than a drama, it is an incredibly informative experience for a viewer looking to understand the sociocultural impacts of rapid urbanization. The film is vaguely reminiscent of the 2005 BBC documentary White Horse Village.
Jia paints a less colorful status quo for the 2004 China than the fantastical displays that the Beijing World Park attempt to exemplify. Prostitution is a reality for women who cannot make ends meet in other blue-collar jobs – as seen through the eyes of former Russian dancer Anna – and is tied up with karaoke bars in the country. Holders of rural hukou – though flocking in their millions for better employment prospects in cities – cannot expect to be treated as well as their urban counterparts. The dancers, security guards, and laborers that migrate from Shanxi to Beijing all find themselves in various precarious positions – at the mercy of sheer luck to just survive. Little to no state intervention is depicted in either party’s case.
Hypocrisy is thus, a central theme in the film. The World follows the lives of these workers as they migrate from Russia, Shanxi, and other parts of China to work as dancers, labourers, and security guards at the park. Taisheng, one such security guard initially pressures his girlfriend Tao, to sleep with him, but then also has an emotional affair with the married store worker Qun. Tao, while initially against the idea, later succumbs to Taisheng’s advances. Her fellow dancer Youyou – who exemplifies the theme the most, perhaps – begins an affair with the park director in the meanwhile, and ends up with a promotion. Another dancer, Wei, announces her plans to marry the abusive Niu, who also performs at the park.
Their individual hypocrisy – while representing each character’s descent into morally questionable behavior – succeeds an internal conflict. The mise-en-scene of Taisheng’s awkward encounter with Tao’s ex-boyfriend at a hole-in-the-wall Beijing diner reflects his torment over whether to befriend her ex, or to admonish her for having one in the first place. Tao, too, is torn between a desire to adhere to the patriarchal “purity” culture that requires that women not engage in premarital intercourse, and a desire to cave into Taisheng’s demands, and assume a more secular way of life, like many in her new hometown. She’s also torn over whether to support Anna’s new identity as a prostitute, or to admonish her for it, as she probably would’ve living in Shanxi. The mise-en-scene of Anna running away from Tao in the karaoke bar during their encounter indicates her own torment at the prospect of either embracing her new occupation, or feeling ashamed that she now has to live her life this way.
Perhaps through this turmoil, Jia is attempting to educate the spectator on what each character loses in terms of identity, beliefs, and values, when adjusting to their new social status in their new hometown. Youyou, Anna, and “Little Sister” are exploited, while Taisheng, Tao, Niu, and Erxiao contradict the societal morality which they grew up around. All the women remain sufficiently subjugated and exploited, a cruel reminder of the gender inequality that has yet to be trampled on by Beijing’s skyscrapers. Their dysfunctional relationships with men can be likened to the dysfunctional relationship that these rural and overseas blue-collar migrants all share with Beijing; exploitative and exhausting. This film is recommended.