First off it should be noted that this is the first film by director Jia Zhangke that I have watched. A bit of background study in to him as an auteur has shown that while this is probably his most popular film, it detracts from the impact that his some his previous work has had despite still covering the matter of globalisation in China and the country's move in to post-modernity.Secondly I want to avoid mentioning or discussing any main plot points unless they are pivotal in understanding the films commentary on globalisation, spatiality and the post-modern.
Even though the film was made seven years ago, the necessity of the overarching narrative is still evident, arguably even more so, now. The film is set in Beijing with the cities theme park Beijing World Park, and follows an array of working class employees who have come to the park from the surrounding countryside and further afield to make ends meet. The theme park features many of the world's most famous landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, and the Taj Mahal. While this global symbolism isn't particularly important to the over all narrative per se; it does allow a continuing theme of travel to recur throughout. And makes for a striking backdrop for Zhangke's narrative of the “impact of urbanisation and globalisation on a traditional culture.”
The film is viewed in a section of vignettes, interspersed by colourful animated transition scenes between each one. These animated sections also allow the films interest in new media technologies to be exhibited, and how they effect the relationships between the characters. Almost every one of these animations has a translated text message between partners included. These text messages reveal the more intimate and honest side of the often-reserved Chinese characters. This suggests that as teenagers or young adults the staff at the theme park are happier to talk about their feelings towards one another from behind the screen of a mobile phone, in much the same way social networks such as Myspace were used around the time is was filmed. While these transitional scenes certainly show the importance of new media technologies within contemporary youth in China, they detract from the overarching beauty of the filmed sequences and appear in an stylistic fashion more suited to that of airport chick-lit than an award winning film.
Perhaps what is most striking about this film (cinematography and camera work aside) is it's ability, at least at first, to allow the characters to play the role of backdrop, whilst it is the park and it's spatiality that carries the narrative. That is until you become riveted by the understated yet almost soap-opera like qualities of the characters, their relationships with each other and their surroundings.
There is a distinct dichotomy of open and enclosed at work within the film. Several characters are shown fairly early on performing a traditional Indian dance in the vast open air of Beijing World Park. However this is juxtaposed fantastically well against the squalled and cramped conditions of the 'back stage' area in which they get ready each day. Not only is this shown throughout the park itself, but several other settings show how trapped within their own lives the characters are. A further point of emphasis, as I have mentioned above, is travel and this is obvious throughout the whole film. A Russian and a Chinese women become and unlikely paring, despite the language barrier between them. This illustrates the theme of globalisation perfectly. The women cement a friendship (that Zhangke could have elaborated on a little more perhaps) irrespective of the cultural divide that separates them (language). This lack of distinction between countries is becoming more and more prevalent with language being one thing a country can hold on to keep it's national identity.
There is further focus on that of the contrived. Everything about the film I set up and designed to juxtapose with the realism of the slowly developing characterisation and relationships throughout the film. “Give us a day, and we can show you the world” is a sign in the park. And that is what the park aims to do. It's these contrivances which make the film stand out as more then just a drama. One scene show's a couple sat on a 'magic carpet' within the park, flying up the Eiffel Tower, beaming and waving at the camera. However before this is shown, we see the couple sat on nothing more on a rug-covered box in front of a blue screen, with the camera being tilted from side to side by the woman operating it. Sure this might just be a theme park gimmick, and something you would find in any theme park, but the importance of this scene is the way in which the scenario is constructed, even the emotions of the couple seem to be forced. A further point of contrivance, is seen outside of the park, when a sweatshop owner meets her degenerate gambler brother. While this is a scene of utmost realism in terms of the characters, the scene takes place in a vacant theatre, with the characters talking in the background, while the setting of the theatre becomes the focus of the scene, suggesting perhaps that life as a whole is a performance and the world or The World, is our stage.
The camera work throughout the entire film is second to none. There are lots of scene in which the camera is completely stationary, allowing the events to unfold before it as it were just another spectator within Beijing World Park. These stationary moments are shot with an almost photographic composition to them. Breaking the 'image' down in to rule of thirds or framing the characters on screen with props such as pillars within the park, and the fantastic global backdrops such as the Arc De Triomphe, as you can see below:
Not only does the concept of Beijing World Park lend itself brilliantly to the cinematography and mise-en-scene within this film, but the backdrop of the Beijing skyline is also impeccably represented by Zhangke. One note worthy scene shows two central characters in the back of a truck on their way away from the park. Both characters seem pensive, yet happy that they're out of the confines of the behind the scenes squallor they live in with the park. The camera is borderline stationary here, despite being set up on the back of the truck with the characters. It's occasional and slow moving pan gives a sense of going-nowhere, as the background doesn't change until the end of the scene, suggesting a sense of aspiring-mobility that will never quite be realised because of the girls social positions.
To conclude, this film is one that makes a concious and successful effort to illustrate the effects of globalisation on a burgeoning Chinese underclass. We find ourselves inexplicably drawn in to The World through expertly crafted camera work and believable situations. If the characters are the spearhead of the film then the shaft is the solid. sturdy and almost ironic (given the nature of the film) cinematography and camera work. Clocking in at just over two hours and a quarter this film might not be for everyone, least of all those who are looking for the over-the-top gorefests of predominant Asian film-making such as Ichi the Killer or Oldboy. Instead we find ourselves drowned in the fantastic costumes and soundtrack of the parks workers, which are wonderfully contrasted with the dank and peeling walls of their living quarters where they spend their free time. Globalisation is a double-edged sword, and we can see it at play better than ever within the choreographed dance routines. Chinese girls performing Indian dances with the same vigour they should be performing traditional Chinese customs with is a sorry site. With such focus on mobile technologies and Mcdonaldisation how long will it be before all national identities are homogenised?