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‘World’ in miniature

Times Staff Writer

UNHURRIED and quietly bold, adroitly balancing a personal and a geopolitical agenda in its exploration of the human stories behind the hustle and flow of the Chinese economic miracle, “The World” has a lot to say and is not in any unholy rush to say it.

Written and directed by China’s Jia Zhangke, it joins the aesthetic deliberateness so much in vogue in Asian cinema with a more traditional concern with character and a surprising willingness to question his country’s status quo. Yet Jia, whose fourth feature this is, is such a subtle director you are almost unaware of what he is doing until he’s done it.

Jia’s willingness to let his story play out slowly and at some length, in this case two hours and 19 minutes, leads to powerful benefits. The points “The World” makes feel not like the film’s ideas but the ones reality would emphasize. And because their force has been allowed to accumulate gradually, the narrative’s emotional sequences have a surprising effect.

One of the pleasures of “The World” is that its title refers not only to the planet we live on but also to an actual Beijing tourist attraction called World Park, whose slogan is “Give us a day and we’ll show you the world.” Spread over more than 100 acres are smaller versions of some of the wonders of five continents, from the Eiffel Tower and Pisa’s Leaning Tower to Big Ben and the Taj Mahal. Think of it as the most surreal place on Earth.

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Director Jia wouldn’t be human if he didn’t take advantage of this setting, using his offbeat but precise eye to give us images like a group of uniformed guards lugging large water containers in front of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. And there is the moment when a worker points out the model of New York’s World Trade Center’s twin towers to a friend and says with pride, “We still have them.”

But “The World’s” effect goes beyond this kind of easy imagery. To the people who work there, who call each other from the local tram on ubiquitous mobile phones and say matter-of-factly, “I’m going to India,” World Park is simply a job site, a means to an end, and we come to see it the same way. It is the business of “The World” to follow the emotional fortunes of a group of the park’s twentysomething employees. The film is interested in them as individuals with stories and also, so gently you almost wouldn’t notice it at first, as something more.

It’s indicative of the arresting style of the film that it opens with a long tracking shot of a young woman in an elaborate, romantic Arabian Nights costume walking toward the camera through a cavernous dressing room and screaming “loud enough to wake the dead” the most prosaic of requests: “Anyone have a Band-Aid?”

Tao (Zhao Tao) is a dancer in one of World Park’s demure Las Vegas-type show numbers. Her boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Taishen), also works in the park, where he looks out for his cousin, a fellow security guard. Also employed there is Tao’s friend Wei (Jing Jue) and her jealous boyfriend, always suspicious when her cellphone is turned off, which is often.

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Some of the romantic complications of these lives could be predicted, but some could not. A group of Russian performers joins the World Park cast and, though they have no shared language, Tao and a dancer named Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova) form an emotional bond that takes them by surprise. The fact that only the audience understands both characters simply adds to the affecting quality.

Gradually “The World” sharpens its focus on what Chinese audiences would have picked up earlier because some of the film’s dialogue is not in Mandarin but in a regional dialect called Shanxi. Most of its characters have come to Beijing from that rural northern province and also have, we realize, cut themselves off from family and community for the kind of economic opportunities that exist only in the capital.

As its story plays out, sometimes with inserted bits of sly animation, “The World” becomes increasingly poignant, its characters’ circumscribed existence contrasting more and more with the glories of the park they work in. Their yearnings are as palpable as the constricted nature of their reality. With the visas necessary for foreign travel harder to get than diamonds, they have to settle for the park’s Magic Carpet Ride, which drops them into a video of Paris. “Who flies on those planes?” a character asks in genuine puzzlement as a jet cruises across the sky. “I don’t know” is the affecting reply.

Though it never says so explicitly, “The World” also has its eye on a wider context. With its focus on people trying to find their place in China as China is simultaneously trying to find its place in the world, it asks a number of provocative questions. What happens in a country when it modernizes faster than its people can handle? When a culture mortgages itself for progress, what is sacrificed in the process? The answers are not in yet, but just raising the questions makes “The World” a remarkable film.

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‘The World’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

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Released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Jia Zhangke. Producers Takio Yoshida, Shozo Ichiyama, Ren Zhonglun. Screenplay Jia Zhangke. Cinematographer Yu Likwai. Editor Kong Jinlei. Music Lim Giong. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes. At Laemmle’s Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010; Laemmle’s One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; and Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 281-8223


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