Maverick Chinese director Jia Zhangke examines the rapidly changing face of China as its economy edges further toward a modified form of market capitalism with yet another complex, multicharacter masterpiece. Jia's vast dramatis personae is entirely fictional, but the bizarre locale Beijing's sprawling World Park is very real. Located just a few miles outside the Chinese capital, it features 106 painstakingly re-created world wonders, ranging from London Bridge and the Taj Mahal to the Great Pyramids, St. Peter's Basilica and the Eiffel Tower. The park also offers job opportunities to provincial youths who come to Beijing searching for a brighter future. Tao (Zhao Tao, who also appears in Jia's PLATFORM and UNKNOWN PLEASURES), a pretty young woman from the small northern Chinese town of Fenyang, has found work at the park as a dancer, dressing in the costumes of India or Japan depending on where she's scheduled to appear. Tao's hometown sweetheart, Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), and his cousin, Exiao (Ji Shuai), work as security guards. Tao befriends a Russian emigre (Alla Chtcherbakova) who can't speak Chinese and is soon put to work as a club "hostess," and Taisheng begins a flirtation with a married woman who creates cheap knockoffs of designer fashions, right to the fake DKNY labels. Around them the lives of their friends unfold. Dancer Wei (Jing Jue) is tormented by a jealous boyfriend (Jiang Zhongwei); Fei, an elevator operator on the Eiffel Tower, nurses a crush on Exiao; and Youyou (Xiang Wan), Wei's roommate, sleeps with a much older park official to ensure a promotion to troupe supervisor. While not officially a sequel to Jia's previous film, UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), which began with China's entry in the World Trade Organization and ended with the promise of a new superhighway joining the industrial town of Datong with Beijing, it's all part of the same picture. The kids have finally arrived in Beijing, presumably via that highway, but rather than the world at large, they've found a surreal simulacrum and an illusion of travel (the recurring image throughout the film is one of Tao riding the park monorail that only goes in circles). The park boasts that here you can "See the world without ever leaving Beijing," and it's a powerful, scathingly ironic metaphor for the place China has made for itself in the global economy. The world has indeed come to China, but only to have its manufacturing done cheaply by underpaid provincial workers.
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