IN "THE WORLD," the people of Beijing have the entire panoply of human civilization before them and yet they have nothing.
At the Chinese capital's World Park, a sort of communist version of Vegas and Busch Gardens, visitors can walk through more than 100 scaled-down copies of the world's most famous landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Pyramid and the New York City skyline with the twin towers. They can also attend large-scale, costumed song-and-dance numbers that pay tribute to cultures from around the globe.
Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke's film, a widescreen extravaganza of glorious tableaux, is about the enormous staff that works here, most of them in their twenties. They are security officers, performers and support staff, who spend their days or nights in this surrealistic world. Tao (Zhao Tao), for instance, dances in different costumes every night. She is going out with Taisheng (Chen Taishen), a park guard who supplements his income with a black market ID operation.
There are many more characters, but they have a common issue: They're in a metaphorical cul-de-sac, despite the park's grandiose connection with the outside world. They're in a society that has long made a grand show of promises but hasn't necessarily delivered. The workers (most from small towns and villages who have come to Beijing for work) are in mutual stasis. Their only happiness and means of expression is in relationships. And their frantic text messaging is a testament to that.
Director Jia, whose film was finally financed by the government (its disapproval of his previous movies forced him to produce them independently), has created a movie with the visual expanse of a John Ford western and the ensemble grandeur and long takes of a Robert Altman picture. The movie is definitely Chinese in content, but it exudes American style and spirit. Jia has said of his work that the long takes suggest a "deadlock that exists between humans and time, the camera and its subject." And watching this, you can see and feel this deadlock in a literal and abstract way. This "World" feels like unspoken but eloquent truth.
THE WORLD (Unrated, 139 minutes) -- Contains sexually mature themes. In Mandarin Chinese and Shanxi dialect with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.