To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
Foreign visitors to China’s many theme parks may be surprised and slightly disappointed, as they generally lack the rollercoaster rides which are synonymous with such attractions in the West. Rather than offering shriek-inducing mechanised thrills with the obligatory long wait in line, these parks seek to recreate periods of Chinese history, and provide a more leisurely experience. Visitors wander around reconstructed towns or temples, take boat rides across nearby lakes, have their photographs taken while wearing traditional clothing, or enjoy the extravagant stage shows that are scheduled at regular intervals throughout the day. Beijing World Park, located in the Fengtai District of the city, adheres to this touristic format but departs from the usual nationalistic theme by providing visitors with the opportunity to travel around the globe within the confines of a safe commercial space, and without the painstaking bureaucratic process associated with visa application. Sights at Beijing World Park include the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Taj Mahal, all of which are scaled-down replicas that serve to represent their respective countries. The theme of this park, and the interconnected nature of nations of power that is illustrated by its layout, came to the attention of the independent director Jia Zhangke, who was seeking to comment on China’s social fabric in the era of globalisation. Jia secured permission to shoot in and around Beijing World Park, making The World his first film to be granted the official stamp of approval from the Film Bureau.
Shot on digital video, The World begins as a fly on the wall look at the workings of Beijing World Park as dancer Tao (Zhao Toa) hurries around backstage looking for a band aid, and then helps out a fellow performer who is having trouble with her outfit. Narrative strands gradually emerge, though, with Tao’s relationship with security guard Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) being the main focus. Both are migrants, but despite shared experiences and work environment, their relationship is strained by Tao’s doubts about Taisheng’s fidelity, and his frustration with her refusal to engage in sexual intimacy. Taisheng has some business dealings outside the park, and arranges jobs for fellow migrants from his home province of Shanxi, such as the childhood friend that he refers to a construction project. When one of his associates ask him to drive clothing seller Qun (Wang Yiqun) to Taiyuan so that she can take care of a family matter, Taisheng finds himself attracted to his passenger and continues to see her casually, while maintaining his relationship with Tao. However, most of the drama revolves around the interactions and indiscretions of the enclosed park community: Tao forms a friendship with Russian immigrant Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), who leaves to work in a bar, Erxiao (Ji Shuai) is caught stealing from the stage performers, Youyou (Xiang Wan) is promoted from dancer to troupe director after having an affair with a senior executive, while Wei (Jing Jue) and Niu (Jiang Zhongwei) decide to marry, even though Niu’s emotionally instability causes fits of jealousy.
Through these workers, Jia is able to assert that China has largely achieved its position as the world’s second biggest superpower through cheap labour costs: the park successfully attracts huge crowds while its employees earn basic wages and live in cramped conditions. However, there is more satirical, even surrealist, humour to be found here than in any other example of the director’s work to date. In short animated sequences, Tao imagines herself flying away from the park, while Taisheng visualises himself riding away on horseback when he receives an inviting text message from Qun. Their mutual desire to escape is understandable as the park is an entirely fake space, where visitors and employees alike are obliged to act is if they are having a good time, even if they are frustrated by the artifice. Real human connection cannot be achieved, and staying too long can mean that personal identity is surrendered or lost. It’s a strange landscape that Jia layers with an immersive soundscape: Lim Giong’s electronic score is mixed with automated elevator voices, the gossip of the employees, and the music of the stage show. Beijing World Park may represent China’s rapid economic progression, but this glimpse of its migrant workforce shows repetition at the grass-roots level of society. Tao and Taisheng have come to the big city in search of prosperity, which remains out of reach. The film’s closing line, ‘This is only the beginning’, suggests that others will follow, continuing the cycle of hopeful dreams, hard work, limited prospects, and eventual disconnectedness.
Reminder: You can win a copy of World Film Locations: Beijing and learn more about the films and locations of the capital city, co-edited by the author of this review. Click here to enter.