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The World (Shijie)

Some films are so good, so masterful, you can't hardly find a way to start talking about them. Zhang Ke Jia's "The World" is like that, though I should warn you: some people think it's crap.

I suppose if you were trying to find a place to start, you could first talk about the plot. It mostly takes place in a theme park (that actually exists -- in a suburb of Beijing) which features something like 100 scale models of various man-made and natural wonders of the world. Its motto is: "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." The place is called World Park and the film follows the lives of a group of young Chinese boys and girls who have moved to Beijing from the country and found work at the park.

Okay, that's not a very promising start, I guess.

What if I told you the film was gorgeous to look at? That you could watch the film over and over and each time find yourself waiting impatiently to get a glimpse of images that are still with you from previous viewings?

That's a little better, I guess, depending on how strongly you respond to the visual elements of film.

Maybe for all you science-fiction fans out there, I could start with how this movie reminds you that all of those horrific, dystopian worlds of the future aren't really "out there" at all. They are here -- and I mean "here" as in "not just in China" -- and they are now -- and I mean "now" as in, well, "right now".

Try to imagine what it would be like if Orwell hadn't written 1984. Try to imagine if it had been written by Lawrence Welk instead.

Have you ever seen any of those repackaged reruns of his show from the, what, I dunno, 60s or 70s? One of the public stations here in New York broadcasts it every Saturday in the early evening. Occasionally as I'm flipping through the channels, I will come across it and find myself inexplicably unable to avert my remote. Jesus God, what a horror. It's not like watching a car wreck, it's like being in a car wreck. You can feel your human soul being sucked right out of you. You just stare at the screen, slack-jawed, and feel your life-force draining away. Eventually the horror builds to a crescendo, you can't bear it any more, and somehow your fingers find a way to change the channel.

Okay, so imagine the soul-sucking family entertainment horror of all that, add to it the police-state mentality of 1984, and you've pretty much got the world of "The World".

Except it sneaks up on you. At first you think you are just watching a story about these kids who work at an incredibly shlocky theme park, but then the truth of what you are seeing slowly begins to dawn...

"Wait a minute... This world isn't so different from the one I actually live in..."

Fortunately, and this is one of the reasons why the film is so good, it never actually says any of that to you. I just creates the world these people live in and does it so well that you are glad to enter it. But once you are inside it, it all begins to feel way too horribly familiar.

And while it's doing all of that, of course, it's also showing you what life is like in China, or at least in Beijing, as the People's Republic takes its great leap forward into the century of globalization. That in itself makes the movie worth watching, if you are as fascinated as I am by that sort of thing. But as I say, it is way more than just that.

If you are more or less happy with the world you are living in, if you are fond of the world as you presently know it, you probably won't like this movie very much. It will probably bore you, or annoy you with its 137 minute length.

But if something feels a bit off to you about the way things are going, if you feel a little bit like you are living in the world of Welk's 1984, then I think this movie will be just the ticket. It might even help you get some sort of visceral (as opposed to intellectual) grasp of just what it is that's bugging you about life here on Earth in the early days of the 21st Century.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


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