Talk about the world stage: Jia Zhangke’s latest is set in Beijing’s World Park, which features scaled-down simulacra of international landmarks, with dancers and guides costumed to match. Another director might collapse under the burden of such a metaphor (though the place actually exists), but it’s balanced by Zhangke’s approach. His essential films (Platform, Unknown Pleasures) depict with immediacy the emotional experiences of inhabitants in a rapidly changing countr-y — where everyone now has a fridge but few can get a grip.
The World drifts along with its characters without a pronounced narrative arc, and a certain vacant exhaustion haunts interactions. Workers scurry from the buttery-glossy glow of stage lights to summer camp-like dorms to the mini-golf-land of the landmarks. Both exposure and confinement mark all these settings; a sense heightened by Zhangke’s withering long takes and reserved framing. The whole concept may sound like a George Saunders story, but this is not snarky absurdism but the post-industrial wasteland firsthand.
The relationship between a dancer, Tao, and a guard, Taisheng, is given most attention, along with a subplot about a cousin Taisheng is keeping tabs on. But most poignant is the non-romantic, non-familial bond between Tao and Anna, a smuggled Russian worker. Their desperate scenes of connection — neither can speak the other’s language — may be a little sentimental in concept, but they capture the human need for connection, which is not always eloquent.
Zhangke must sense the vulnerability of the viewer to similar feelings, because he includes the intriguing gesture of tinny cellphone-graphic flights of fancy that fill the screen when a character misses a call. Widely adored at festivals, The World is indisputably important, but it is a film some may appreciate more than love.
Opens July 1