There is, reportedly, no word for irony in Chinese. Yet the title of Jia Zhangke’s fourth feature, The World, is clearly ironic. The writer-director’s previous films—acclaimed on the film-fest circuit but essentially banned in China and little seen in the United States—were all set in remote Shanxi, Jia’s home province. There, young people were affected by international entertainment trends whose origins they barely understood, from break dancing to pirated DVDs. Now Jia introduces some Shanxi emigrants to cosmopolitan Beijing, where they finally encounter the whole wide world: a Disney-like theme park with scaled-down models of such foreign landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and the World Trade Center. The characters have taken a one-hop journey from northern Chinese backwater to Baudrillardian hyperreality.
As in the director’s other films, the narrative is episodic and slow to emerge. Introduced while on an epic quest for a Band-Aid, Tao (Zhao Tao) works as a dancer and living diorama model at the Beijing World Park, where she variously plays an Indian dancer or a Japanese woman, and travels between the park’s ersatz international zones on a lightly patronized monorail. She’s also conducting a wary romance with Taisheng (Chen Taishen), a park security guard who wants Tao “to prove her love” even as he’s becoming close to another woman. Both Tao and Taisheng are from Shanxi, and the former is portrayed by Jia’s regular female lead, seen in Unknown Pleasures and Platform. Unsurprisingly, Zhao and her co-star play their parts in the nonestablished Jia mode, deadpan yearning.
The two central characters are framed by many others, including a parallel set of park-employed lovers whose relationship is more combative than Tao and Taisheng’s, a group of Russian dancers who are virtual slaves of the promoter who brought them to China, and some of Taisheng’s Shanxi friends, who’ve come to Beijing to take perilous construction jobs. There’s also Tao’s globe-trotting ex, who passes through town briefly, and the older woman who catches Taisheng’s fancy but who remains faithful to the husband who emigrated to Paris 10 years ago. Most of the action takes place near the sham monuments or in shadowy backstage areas—which permit some lovely low-light compositions—but sometimes the characters venture outside the park and into the city, a sorta-free-market boomtown that’s still watched over by huge portraits of Chairman Mao.
For viewers unfamiliar with Jia’s precursors, who include Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, The World may seem sluggish. The director prefers a deliberate pace and long takes (shot elegantly by another regular, Yu Likwai) that convey what he calls “that sense of deadlock…that exists between humans and time.” Yet this is his most outgoing film, with bright colors, comic juxtapositions, and inside jokes. Titles flash on the screen, announcing such possible destinations as Ulan Bator and Belleville, and cell-phone text messages, a motif in many recent Asian films, link to brief animated interludes. The incongruity of the setting, which allows commonplace conversations to play out in the shadow of “the Acropolis” or near an oblivious camel, expands the themes of Jia’s previous work, in which showbiz offers a preposterous yet profound contrast to the meanness of everyday existence. Movies can even become life, as when the kimono-clad Tao and friends discuss an upcoming wedding in the park’s model of a Japanese house, accompanied by music from the score of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
Filmed in an actual suburban-Beijing theme park and a similar operation near the thriving southern city of Shenzhen, The World brings globalization home. It renders Beijing as a place that’s rapidly internationalizing yet offers only a teasing simulation of the larger world. And as clean and bright as many of its settings are, this is hardly Jia’s most cheerful movie. The seemingly scattershot tale tightens as it moves toward two fatal incidents, one of them almost unbearably poignant, the other absurd and open-ended. The film’s final moment is ambiguous, but The World is clear about one thing: Escaping the malaise of contemporary China isn’t simply a matter of scoring a visa.
A young woman’s body is found in an irrigation ditch; a blustering cop arrives, helpless to prevent crime-scene evidence from being trampled. Memories of Murder’s opening scenes announce it as a ruefully comic serial-killer flick, a genre American filmmakers can—and sometimes seemingly do—execute in their sleep. It gradually becomes evident, however, that Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho has something more complex in mind. His movie doesn’t always elude cliché, but it does take several fruitful detours on its way to an ending that should frustrate CSI fans.
Bong’s previous film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, was a middling black comedy most notable for a culturally specific character: a guy who kidnaps mutts because he finds them tasty. Memories of Murder is more universal but not without distinctively Korean facets. It’s based on an actual case and is set in 1986, a crucial moment in the country’s recent history. As small-town detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Jo (Kim Roe-ha) attempt to beat confessions out of various hapless locals, the national government brutalizes pro-democracy demonstrators in hopes of maintaining power. (The dictatorship ended the following year.) Park and Jo play good cop/bad cop, but neither is especially virtuous—and both cluelessly exemplify the system under which they live.
The case is not quickly solved, so the two detectives are joined by Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a Seoul-based policeman whose arrival rattles everyone. (A woman assumes the stranger is a threat and calls Park, who promptly beats up the guy.) The relationship between Seo and his rural counterparts is the film’s most conventional element. Whereas Park and Jo are hotheaded and instinctual—and usually wrong—Seo is cool and methodical. He silently watches the country cops make their wild assumptions and occasionally explains what they’ve missed. And as the fetishistic rape/murders increase and the killer remains uncaught, something else predictable happens: Park and Seo begin to trade personalities, a familiar device in Hollywood psycho-killer fare (although the switch more often occurs between cop and perp).
With the help of observant female police officer Kwon (Koh Seo-hee), Seo seems to puzzle out the killer’s identity. But that, of course, would be too easy. Memories of Murder offers the usual array of far-fetched clues, from a repeated song request to some of the killer’s physical traits, but it fails to tote them up the way Sherlock Holmes or his myriad successors would. Murder, Bong wryly suggests, is not so tidy as it appears in the movies.
The film’s epilogue is set in 2003, when one of the characters has his memories of the murders refreshed. It’s the same guy we met in the opening scene, yet he’s not exactly the central character. Indeed, Bong regularly switches vantage points, showing different pieces of the story through the eyes of the cops, the suspects, and—apparently—the killer. He also varies the film’s texture significantly, observing some events in long, detached takes and others with quick cuts and fast camera movements, the latter sequences often propelled by Japanese composer Iwashiro Taro’s percussive score. The result is a murder mystery that violates the form’s customary celebration of order and understanding. Flawed but fascinating, Memories of Murder presents life as a gnawing, unsolvable cold case.CP