A Whole New World

Director Jia Zhangke is a modern Antonioni, capturing drift and alienation in an Asian context.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 15, 2006

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The World
Includes: Introduction, production notes, photo gallery, essay and more.
You'll Like It If You Like: Art cinema, Asian cinema, movies about alienation.

This melancholy Chinese drama starts from a brilliant and original premise. It's set in a theme park outside Beijing called the World, which has replicas of global icons like the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and yes, the Twin Towers. "We still have them!" a security guard proudly boasts to his friend.

In this fun-house simulacrum, you can cross the world (by monorail) in 15 minutes, pose for pictures pretending to "hold up" the Leaning Tower of Pisa and read slogans like, "See the world without ever leaving Beijing" or "Give us a day, we'll show you the world."

When you're in the World, you feel like you're going somewhere-though in fact you're going nowhere at all. That's how life feels for the aimless park workers on whom the film focuses-and it's how the movie may feel for viewers too.

Director Jia Zhangke sets up his amazing metaphor but then doesn't do much with it, filling almost two and a half hours with the sad, drifting lives of the sad, drifting young people who work at the park, especially lovelorn Tao, who tells her boyfriend she'd have no life without him-and we see no reason to doubt her.

These people's lives are governed by cell phones and text-messaging, communications as spectral as the park itself. Jia reinforces this eeriness by turning the text messages into vivid pop art cartoons with more color and animation than anything else in his characters' lives.

The film is filled with images of disconnect and false travel, from a Titanic movie poster, to the "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" muzak in the Eiffel Tower elevator, to an amazing scene in which Tao and her boyfriend pretend to be ecstatic lovers on a flying carpet, soaring over the Eiffel Tower.

Tao strikes up a friendship with a Russian woman who speaks no Chinese and dreams of saving enough money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator. The real Ulan Bator is no more tangible or achievable for them than the fake one in the park, yet Tao envies her friend's "freedom" to move around the real world.

Tao, her Russian friend and the other park workers try to achieve
real moments in the midst of this hand-me-down environment of recycled sights. When the Russian woman sings a mournful song about Ulan Bator, it feels more genuine and heartfelt than anything in the playhouse of replications around her. Death, loss, jealousy, love and longing infuse these workers' lives as the movie goes along, insisting on their emotional primacy-their emotional necessity-in the midst of the world's artificiality.

The World works better in theory than in practice. Jia has trouble building momentum and creating interest in characters who feel shallow and opaque, representations of moods and concepts more than fully imagined people. He seems to drift along with his characters.

The World still stands as a central work of contemporary world cinema, ranked fifth among all 2005 releases in The Village Voice's annual movie critics' poll, and fitted out in this DVD with an introduction from film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Like Wong Kar-Wai, Jia has made himself a modern-day Antonioni, capturing drift and alienation in an Asian context as European filmmakers did 40 years ago. It's not a style that'll please, or even interest, everyone, but it's an indelible experience even if Jia never fully brings his world to life.

Significant Others: The Complete Series

Abrasive and outrageous, Larry David makes improv comedy work on Curb Your Enthusiasm because he's so unpredictable. You're never sure what he'll say-and you can't forecast how the show's plots will turn-so you don't feel mired in the mundanity of improv blah blah.

Four years after Curb started, Bravo tried the same trick with Significant Others, a 2004 series about four dysfunctional marriages. Too chatty and suburban to be a cult hit, and too stylistically different to be a mainstream Sex and the City-style phenom, the show never caught on and was canceled after 12 episodes.

On two DVDs, Significant Others still doesn't seem very compelling or original. Each episode features improvised scenes from the lives of four couples who share the same therapist. Played by actors, the couples talk to the "therapist" (the camera) at the beginning and end of each episode.

The show focused on three couples-all white, childless, heterosexual, upper-middle-class and vaguely dissatisfied in spoiled and overprivileged ways. Slacker Ethan deals with the pregnancy of his wife Eleanor, who seems to be some kind of grad student; frat-boyish financial analyst James deals with his wilder wife Chelsea, who he learns slept with 200 guys before she met him; and middle-aged Bill deals with losing his job and sleeping with the shrewish sister of his wife Connie.

Almost halfway through its run, the show suddenly hedged its bets by tacking on African-American working parents Devon and Alex, who struggle with their sex lives and parenting skills in the ensuing episodes. Eventually James and Chelsea get divorced, then start seeing each other again and remarry. Bill and Connie also separate and then reconcile, and Ethan and Eleanor become unhappy suburbanites.

If Bravo took four random couples and filmed them for a while, it wouldn't feel much different from this show. You need abrasiveness like Larry David's, even when it feels far-fetched, to lift improv comedy beyond the banal. The actors in Significant Others are clever and appealing, but the series feels more like overhearing cell phone conversations on the train than watching interesting stories about interesting people. It makes you want some writers back. B-

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